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Productivity / Project management

The value of project post mortems

Where did things go wrong? Or right? Project post mortems are great, but only if they’re done right. Here’s how to carry out a review once the dust settles on your project.

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When to conduct project post mortems

A structured approach to project post-mortems is required to make them truly effective and to extract the most learning opportunities. One of the biggest derailments of undertaking a project review is working out when to actually do it. We have found the most effective trigger events for a project post-mortem are:

1. Once the critical bugs or issues have been addressed post-launch; but before the project team has dispersed onto other endeavours.

2. When a significant change or shock to the project has occurred; such as losing a major contractor or an adverse environmental factor (say, a change in regulations).

3. For longer running projects, undertaking a review after a significant milestone is a great way to take stock and improve for the next phase of the project. You don’t need to leave it to the end of the project to go through the review process.

Often the project post mortem is left too late to be effective and people may not only have moved on physically, but also mentally.

"Often the project post mortem is left too late to be effective and people may not only have moved on physically, but also mentally."

Important questions to ask

The following questions give structure and impartiality to the review process:

1. What did we do well? It’s important to lead with this question as a way of promoting a positive approach to the post-mortem. Keep the responses to this question positive and on-topic.

2. What did we do poorly? This is a way of understanding the issues, not a blamefest

3. What didn’t we see coming? Identify the issues that weren’t apparent until they arose.

4. What did we learn as a result of the project? Strategise how things could be done differently next time.

Want more articles like this? Check out the project management section.

Feedback channels

Internal participants, external contractors and stakeholders all need to be involved in the project post-mortem. To cater for these different perspectives and availability, the review should ideally include the following three methods of gathering feedback:

1. Roundtable discussion: Do this first. Get everyone in the room, preferably with an independent arbiter, and work through the review questions. Don’t be afraid to bring the discussion back on topic and ensure the discussion doesn’t get personal.

2. One-on-one Interviews: Personal interviews give people the opportunity to speak freely outside of the group and their peers.

3. Anonymous Channel: Especially where the project was not considered a success and to cater for different personality types; provide a channel for completely anonymous feedback without the fear of recrimination.

Don’t learn lessons twice

The most important, and often forgotten, part of the project post-mortem is to feed the knowledge gained and lessons learned back into your business processes. Consider these actions for your next review:

1. Modify hiring standards and selection criteria to ensure candidates possess the skills, attitudes and experience required for your project types.

2. Establish ongoing performance monitoring, coaching and training to ensure expectations of behaviour are met and deviations are addressed quickly and in context.

3. Put lessons learned into the project planning process; such as including whatever delayed this project into future project plans and considerations.

4. Where team conflicts arose; establish expectations of behaviour upfront, and set out conflict resolution guidelines for if flashpoints occur.

5. Formulate a way of scoring the complexity and scope of future projects as a way of establishing appropriate planning, governance and control structures.

Most importantly, whether the changes required are people- or process-oriented, ensure improvement strategies are realised through a combination of follow-ups and re-evaluations in the next project post-mortem.

So, do you conduct project post mortems effectively?

Greg Pritchard

is dedicated to making your software and systems contribute to your business bottom line. He founded Dedication Group, an IT & Management Consultancy helping companies deliver on their IT Strategies.

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