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How Elite Agencies Run Project Post-Mortems

Mark NicholsLast Updated: October 12, 2016

For the first time in the history of the workplace, it’s perfectly acceptable to celebrate mistakes. 

“Fail fast” has transcended the office to become a personal mantra—words to live by when you’re urging yourself into the unfamiliar and staring down disappointment (it might be a framed poster on your wall right now).

However, there’s a misunderstood piece of this new-ish culture of failure: That failure is some kind of endpoint. It’s not. It’s never enough to simply dust yourself off after a critical mistake.

We shouldn’t feel guilty about failure, but we also must remember this:

Treating failure as an endpoint gives it too much power. (tweet this)

Failure is, at its worst, a roadblock. And at a growing business, your team needs to not just crash and burn, but pull themselves from the wreckage of errors and deconstruct the crash so that it never happens again.

Similarly, we need to capture our wins so that they aren’t remembered as lucky breaks. 

We need to give a name to absolutely everything that had a notable effect on our projects, good and bad, and let them become the fabric of how we get stuff done. It’s only in these trusted processes that our teams can find focus.

An amazing way to collect and analyze these peaks and valleys is a project post-mortem. In my experience—and the experience of some others that you’ll hear from below—project post-mortems are a key part of team management, and a crucial way of honing in on what makes your team click, and what makes them… well, crash.

Just what exactly is a project post-mortem?

Alex Shootman, the CEO of Workfront, told us this of his experience with unsuccessful projects:

Every project will encounter at least three disasters along the way. And none of these disasters will be related to the technical, mechanical or procedural tasks at hand. They will all come down to communications.”

It’s true that projects often die at the hands of bad team communication. But when it comes to a project post-mortem, team communication can also be the saving grace.

While project post-mortems can take many forms—they are typically formalized at all-hands meetings involving all members of a project. That said, they can also involve individual or segmented discussions for larger teams—the inner workings of a project post-mortem are all about cutting through poor communication practices, and letting your team objectively discuss the outcome of a project.

On the surface, it’s a discussion about what went well, what went poorly, and how the team can be better. Under the hood, though, it’s an opportunity to remind your group that excellent team performance does not happen by accident—it’s a process that happens in increments, as a collective.

Followers of the Agile framework believe so highly in the project post-mortem—within the community, it’s called the much less morbid ‘retrospective’—that it’s one of the core principles of the Agile Manifesto:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

Agile also very vocally values “Responding to change over following a plan”—which can be very instructive advice when considering that your team is not a static object. Much is changing in any growing enterprise—let alone one caught in the insanity of client work—and it’s important to be constantly acknowledging change.

In all likelihood, your team is too new and half-formed to hold ideas too close to heart. So why not make decisions rapidly, based on experience and a desire to continually improve?

With all that in mind, we talked to the best in the biz to find out what makes for a perfect post-mortem—one that ensures that project mistakes of the past stay in the past.

1. Record results early and often.

Any team that does client work will tell you that a week-long project almost never takes a week. Communication slows down, deliverables get rejected, and the perfect schedule proves too ambitious after all. To make matters worse, we rarely raise any flags when it’s clear things are starting to drift off schedule, as Knight, Thomas, and Angus pointed out in HBR:

Why don’t more project managers sound an alarm when they’re going to blow past their deadlines? Because most of them have no earthly idea when they’ll finish the job. They don’t even think it’s possible to know. Too many variables. Too much that’s out of their control.”

At this point, the project usually becomes a crawl to the finish line for everyone, project managers included. The collective eagerness to move on mutes out the good and bad parts, and the main takeaway at the end will be “Thank god it’s over. Let’s move on.”

To maximize lessons learned, try to engage your team throughout your projects. This ensures that your team, exhausted and eager to move on from a long project, doesn’t limp their way through a post-mortem.

Samuel Wheeler, a project manager at Inseev Interactive, suggests holding regular “Innovation Sessions” to improve processes and operations:

In this session, your team can discuss ways that current projects can be improved or changed. It is a great way for the leader of the team to receive feedback and allow the team members to be involved in the operational side of the project. I love to hold these sessions over a beer or some light snacks as it helps to encourage creativity and conversation. I have found that these structured meetings often result in high quality action items that improve every project.”

By following Samuel’s lead, you can not only improve process and outcome throughout a project, but arrive at the post-mortem armed with real, live data from your team—not just whatever wins and losses remained in the rubble of a project. At your post-mortem, open all of your collected findings to the team, and see what still resonates.

2. Emphasize team performance, and kill the witch hunt.

The average guilt-ridden person likely feels that any unsuccessful project is their fault—or that a very successful project was due in no part to their contributions.

Worse still, the people who are really at fault may come into a project post-mortem eager to shift the blame elsewhere (“Dev would have been on schedule if design hadn’t dragged their feet!”). It may seem like the best path to open up the floor to everyone—but if you open it up to the blamers, you’ll have a poisonous post-mortem on your hands.

The problem to solve here: 

How can we remove the idea that anyone stands to lose anything personally by attending a project post-mortem? The answer may lie in emphasizing that this is about improving team performance, not supercharging the loudest individuals in the room.

While transforming a group of individuals into a team involves some serious alchemy and is not an easily-solved problem itself, Linda Hill and Kent Lineback summed up what makes a team quite beautifully over at HBR:

The powerful ties among members of this social structure spring, first, from purpose and goals. A common, worthwhile purpose creates a sense of doing something important together, and specific, challenging team goals based on that purpose create a sense of going someplace important together. Without purpose and goals, no group will become a team.”

Knowing this, it’s valuable to ensure that your team understands the reasoning for a project post-mortem goes beyond “I guess we screwed up, and our boss is mad.”

Successful project post-mortems bring critical reflection into a safe space. (tweet this)

Giving your team—and company—a clear purpose can help them think past the next project, and towards the bright future. Dependably smooth projects, then, simply become a means to achieving this shared goal.

Yes, your team is trying to keep clients happy and do terrific work. But what’s it all for?

3. Record, recognize, and reward victories.

A key outcome of any project post-mortem isn’t just a small process improvement—it’s a leap forward in your team’s motivation to go out and crush the next big project. And as much as your laundry list of criticisms may feel like the true path to successful projects, motivation lies on highlighting wins.

Over on the Portent blog, Kyle Eliason writes about how mindset plays into the dynamics of the reflective team:

It’s important that your team is in the right mindset: positive and learning-focused, not defensive or hypercritical…. Generally, the more powerful or proud they feel, the more effectively they can process constructive criticism.”

Think of it this way: Do you want to storm into a project post-mortem looking sullen and ready to explode, or do you want to cruise in with an air of optimism? Do you want the first words out of your mouth to be “We made some critical mistakes, and we’re lucky we got out of this alive,” or “We retained a major client, and shipped an unbelievable website”?

The former in each example may rub your feared leader ego the right way, but the latter gives your team a major cushion when they’re taken aback by critique. If the lede reads that the project had some big wins, the realities of failure and criticism will be far easier to stomach.

A team whose victories are often highlighted—but especially in a project post-mortem—may surprise you with how far they’re willing to go for the sake of the company, as Katherine Kostereva of bpm’online told us:

Never underestimate the role of motivation in a project’s success… Such recognition will pay off immediately as your team will feel their work is important and valued. A highly motivated and engaged team will always be ready to go the extra mile to ensure the project’s success.”

4. Be transparent with your clients.

If all goes well, you and your team will leave the project post-mortem with a list of improvements—and in all likelihood, a good idea of how your team could have given the client or customer a smoother experience with the company. Your instinct here may be to quietly work these findings into your process for the next project, and let your client be amazed by how much better things felt on the second, third, fourth, or fifth go around.

But is not owning up to those mistakes really the right way to go?

Many client services companies sell their services as a ‘partnership.’ They say that they’re equally as invested in the outcome as the client. Why shouldn’t a project post-mortem acknowledge that and let the client in the loop? Hell, maybe the client has a part to play in the outcome of a less-than-successful project, too.

Keith Shields, partner at Designli, offers this advice on the sometimes adversarial relationship between clients and agencies:

Professional Service companies should not be an unknown ‘black box’ where clients put projects and they pop out a certain amount of time later completed. Be transparent with your process, and this will reduce your client phone calls by 20% right away.”

By removing the client from the feedback loop, you become nothing more than another black box—an impersonal place your client comes when they need something.

Give the client a chance to care about your team and how they get things done, and you might be amazed by their enthusiasm. Conversely, you might be amazed by how little they care. In both cases, you’ll be treated to a keen sense of whether they’re a fit for your agency going forward.

Sharing these results with your client can take the form of a simple email, a report, or an in-person meeting. However it’s done, it shows that you care about their opinion, their money, and maybe most importantly, their trust.

Trust, after all, is what business is all about, although we don’t talk about it that often. Clients entrust us with their money. Customers entrust us with their data. And employees entrust us with their careers.

Running better projects—and showing continual improvement across the board—is a tiny way of communicating to everyone involved: Yes, I have your trust, and yes, it’s important to me.


Illustrations: Bully

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