Months of planning, ideating, developing, failing, learning, iterating, executing, and producing, and just like that, Christmas is over. Now what? How about a postmortem?
Replace Christmas with annual reports, year-end giving, New Year launch, etc. It never ends. The next thing is ALWAYS waiting, and it’s likely you’re already knee deep in several things at once. But before you declare Christmas over, make time to look back at what you’ve just accomplished and assess what you can do better next time through a postmortem.
What is a postmortem, and why do I need one?
The thought of another meeting may make you want to cry, scream, throw up, or all of the above. But in terms of importance and impact, it’s one of the most productive meetings you can have. A well run postmortem takes a look at the entirety of a project with the goal of determining what went well, what didn’t, what you’ve learned, and how things can work more efficiently moving forward. It’ll help a team see the big picture and the end results through the lens of all of the hard work it took to get there.
A postmortem is strange combination. It’s part celebration, part funeral, part self-reflection, part planning. It’s a whole lot of open, honest communication positioning the team on the same page, and in the right frame of mind to move forward. The point is to take all of the effort you’ve poured into it through your blood, sweat, and tears, and ensure sure you and your team have learned what you needed to. By having a postmortem, you won’t let any of effort you gave go to waste.
How should I run a postmortem?
Invite the right people.
Who should be invited? Everyone who worked on the project when possible. If that is a big number, then consider doing smaller postmortems by team or concentration, and then have key stakeholders from each group represent those teams and findings at a meeting. If you do this, those leaders will need to report any additional lessons learned back to the original teams. The goal is to give everyone who participated a voice and make them feel heard.
Have the right person lead.
Someone with high emotional IQ should lead the meeting. It is usually someone who led the project, but it’s not a bad idea to have a neutral party lead either. This person needs to be able to read the room, help navigate potential conflict, and guide the conversation away from finger pointing towards team-oriented solutions.
Set the postmortem stage.
Set ground rules in advance and communicate about the purpose and agenda. Let the team know you’re looking back with the intent of finding a better way forward. It’s important for the team to show up with an open mind, having done some of their own self-reflection, and not looking to point blame at others. Participants will need to work intentionally at assuming the best in people. It’s a hard practice because so often it’s easier to assign blame.
Rather than saying, “This person didn’t send X on time, so I couldn’t do Y.” focus on the problem that needs to be addressed: “I didn’t have X, so I wasn’t able to do Y.” This allows people to take ownership of their own mistakes and arrive at actionable next steps, rather than leave someone defensive, feeling accused. It also opens up the possibility that someone will ask for direct feedback, allowing for further discussion without hurt feelings.
Ask the right questions.
Postmortems typically answer some version of the following questions:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- Did we achieve our goals?
- What was (or is still) confusing?
- What did we learn?
- How can we take what we’ve learned, and make changes for the next project?
- What happens now, and who is responsible for it? (Action Items)
Start with what went right. It’s easy to focus on the negative and problems that need to be fixed. Don’t gloss over celebrating the wins.
The more specific people are, the more likely the team will be to arrive at actionable items that will improve the next project. Don’t settle for high level, vague items. Take things deeper with “why” questions. Narrow in on specifics that lead to actionable items.
Consider each stage of the project to give yourselves a more wholistic view than focusing on the end result. Sometimes a timeline of each stage and major milestone can help guide discussion. Touch on things like collaboration, communication, workflow, teams, planning, meetings, resources, etc.
It’s also important to assign action steps with timelines for things that can be done now to set up future team success. If nothing actionable happens, did you actually learned anything? How can you be more efficient? How can you collaborate better? What processes and workflows need to be shifted?
Customize the meeting for your team and situation.
When I run a postmortem for my own direct reports, I incorporate our team values. I ask the team to assign their own pass/fail grade to each individual value. I give the team a few minutes to reflect and assign grades to themselves. Then we’d then talk as a group about how members of the team fulfilled our values. It is a great opportunity for building morale as team members to call each other out for shining through specific values with a job well done.
If there are action steps, there needs to be follow-up. Nothing kills team morale quicker than the feeling that you weren’t heard. When something can’t be shifted, or an action step can’t be completed, there needs to be a thorough explanation of the why. Follow up with those assigned action steps, and report progress back to the team.
A solid postmortem will help your team move forward with actionable insights that improve collaboration, boost morale by making people feel heard, and make the next challenge you tackle together flow smoother.
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