Project Post-Mortem: Best Practices for a Successful Meeting

Lucija Bakić

April 26, 2024

A screenshot of a project post-mortem software interface focused on a 'Motion graphics' task, displaying comments, status updates, and task details like assignee, due date, and priority within a project management tool.

The project post-mortem is an excellent method for companies to foster experience and knowledge from completed projects.

Despite its importance, it can be a blind spot for agencies. How do you prepare for a retrospective meeting? How should it look, and what to do with the insights you’ve gathered?

This guide will lay down the basic ground rules to help you hold a productive post-mortem discussion.

What Is a Project Post-Mortem?

A project post-mortem (PMA) is a structured meeting held after project completion. It’s a valuable tool for assessing the potential causes of project failure, sharing knowledge among team members, and identifying and developing action items for future projects.

During a post-mortem, all stakeholders, including project managers, team members, and often clients, come together to discuss the project’s outcomes in detail. They review objectives, processes, performance, and outcomes against the initial project goals. The meeting encourages an open and honest dialogue where participants can share their experiences without fear of blame.

Learn more: The End-to-End Process of Project Management

Project Premortem vs Postmortem

While the post-mortem meeting focuses on a retrospective review of the entire project, the premortem is a forward-looking approach. As a proactive strategy, it includes identifying and anticipating potential problems before the project kickoff. This type of risk analysis can have multiple benefits, from making teams and project managers more sensitive to potential risks during the process to preventing them in their entirety.

It’s important to note that holding a premortem doesn’t mean you should do away with a follow-up after the project’s completion. As a valuable tool for managing success and failure, the postmortem is a crucial part of a comprehensive approach to project management.

A screenshot of a project post-mortem meeting board for a brand style guide refresh, featuring multicolored sticky notes and status dots indicating various stages of feedback, issues, and team sentiments.

Example of a premortem meeting board by Atlassian

Why It’s Important to Have Post-Mortem Meetings

Post-mortem meetings allow agencies to develop institutional knowledge by providing an open platform for collaboration and communication.

During a post-mortem brief, project teams identify what went wrong, but also the underlying reasons for why something went wrong. This is often called a root-cause analysis, as it digs deep into the underlying issues or problems that cause a system, process, or activity to fail or perform poorly.

While a postmortem is focused mainly on project failures, it also helps identify and celebrate good practices that should be carried onto future projects.

This continuous cycle of evaluation and learning ensures that each project contributes to future business success, ultimately leading to improved organizational efficiency and effectiveness.

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The Benefits of a Successful Postmortem

A post-mortem:

  • Allows teams to avoid repeating mistakes in future endeavors by pinpointing specific errors or oversights made during the project
  • Goes beyond superficial problems to explore deeper systemic issues in business workflows that may affect project outcomes
  • Encourages open communication and collective reflection among team members, strengthening team dynamics and cohesion
  • Captures valuable lessons learned, turning individual project experiences into shared organizational knowledge
  • Identifies successful strategies and processes that can be documented and replicated in future projects.
  • Supports a culture of transparency and continuous improvement, making it easier for organizations to adapt and innovate

The Challenges of Holding Post-Mortems

According to research, as many as 20% of IT companies do not conduct post-mortems, while more than 50% conduct them on fewer than half of their projects.

When it comes to the main reasons, managers reported reasons such as unavailable people, shortage of personnel qualified to conduct a proper analysis, lack of defined criteria, lack of time due to other projects, and more (A Defined Process for Project Postmortem Review).

Despite these challenges, the importance of conducting project post-mortems cannot be overstated. Not only does it help agencies analyze complex projects with many moving parts, but it’s also a valuable tool for smaller a mid-sized companies with limited resources to invest in their knowledge management.

By overcoming these barriers, teams can ensure continuous improvement, leading to more successful project management practices and better organizational performance.

Preparing a Project Recap: Main Steps

Preparing post-mortem meetings includes setting an agenda, designating one or more moderators, and establishing the ground rules for how the discussion will be structured.

  • Your post-mortem meeting agenda can include a specific focus, such as “Identify major opportunities for improvements” or “Develop recommendations for better adherence to the project schedule”. Your agenda can also be more general — a full review of the project plan and execution. Whatever it is, make sure to set the expectations beforehand to ensure the discussion remains productive.
  • A good moderator is essential, as they help organize and guide the discussion towards achieving your goals. They can be employees in the company or an external facilitator. Both approaches can be beneficial — an internal facilitator has intimate knowledge of the project, but an external one might be perceived as more neutral and objective. Consider including a note taker to help the moderator focus on more active participation.
  • There are different ways to set up your discussion. For example, it could be organized as a semi-structured interview, a facilitated group discussion, or have participants organize their ideas into notes, including positive and negative project experiences. Whichever method you choose, consider your participants and their preferences to promote open communication and get honest feedback.

5 Tips For Successful Post-Mortems & How to Avoid Post-Mortem Mistakes

Once you’ve got the rough structure of your retrospective meeting, here are some best practices for avoiding post-mortem mistakes and achieving a successful discussion.

  • Prioritize the most important topics
  • Reflect on positives, not only the negatives
  • Ensure open participation for all stakeholders
  • Avoid casting blame
  • Create a final report

Topic Prioritization

Building on the groundwork laid during the preparation of the post-mortem, the meeting leader should focus on addressing the key questions that help analyze the planning, execution, and project results. This can include topics such as:

  • Planning: Did the project follow the planned timeline and budget? Were the milestones and deliverables clearly defined?
  • Execution: How effectively did the team collaborate? Were resources allocated properly? Was the project delivered on time and within budget?
  • Results: Did the project meet its objectives? How did it impact the client, the team, and the overall business?

If your PMA has a specific goal, such as improving your cost estimation and efficiency, the questions can be tailored to better reflect this.

Consider Positives

Often, a project post mortem can look a little like a group therapy session. While this can be beneficial in some ways, if at least to make people feel heard and understood, it doesn’t go a long way towards providing actionable solutions.

This is why it’s essential to open the meeting with a positive mindset. Make an effort to highlight successes and what worked well. When the time comes to discuss issues, try to do so by focusing on developing strategies to resolve them.

This moves the discussion away from assigning blame or dwelling on mistakes and towards proactive problem-solving and improvement.

Open Participation

PMA should be open for participation to all project stakeholders. You can also encourage indirectly involved staff members to join in, though it might be beneficial to hold a separate session for them to focus specifically on insights or impacts relevant to their roles.

This approach allows for a broader spectrum of feedback and helps to gather diverse perspectives. Separating the discussions can also prevent the main session from becoming too unfocused.

Ultimately, this will depend on the aim of your PMA — whether it’s to discuss a specific project activity or goal or to create a comprehensive review of the project process.

The crucial thing is foster a non-threatening environment where participants feel free to express opinions without fear of criticism or repercussions.

Avoid the Blame Game

A successful post-mortem avoids casting blame and instead focuses on constructive feedback and learning. To prevent the participants from turning defensive, the discussion should move away from punishment and blame and towards a strategic discussion of why, when, and how a failure occurred.

Why shouldn’t they be punished or reprimanded? Because an engineer who thinks they’re going to be reprimanded are disincentivized to give the details necessary to get an understanding of the mechanism, pathology, and operation of the failure. This lack of understanding of how the accident occurred all but guarantees that it will repeat. If not with the original engineer, another one in the future.

Source: Blameless PostMortems and a Just Culture

This approach promotes a more objective analysis and helps team members feel comfortable sharing their experiences and insights, which is vital for identifying the root causes of issues and developing practical solutions.

Documenting the Meeting

The results of the meeting should be documented in a post-mortem report. This can include:

  • A project description, including the original action plan and methods used to achieve it, timeline and budget, and other essential details
  • The main problems and successes, with added causes and descriptions
  • Meeting notes so that the discussions can be reviewed for additional insights and to improve future post-mortems

A post-mortem report ensures that all valuable insights and lessons shared during the meeting are preserved for later reference. It should be shared across all relevant stakeholders to increase the chance of it being used to drive process improvements.

This can contribute to historical and cross-project analysis, which is beneficial for gathering various types of agency data — for example, a client profitability analysis.

Improving Future Projects With Post-Mortem Meeting Insights

A successful postmortem is a crucial resources for recognizing project success and failure. As a tool for continuous improvement, it helps agencies enhance projects based on reliable data from multiple sources.

Post-mortems also improve collaboration and communication in the team. They reiterate a healthy workplace mindset where mistakes are understood and analyzed rather than punished.

To support your project post-mortem insights, consider investing in a comprehensive project management tool.

A screenshot of a project post-mortem software showing a task timeline for 'Blog posts', with color-coded tasks like 'Visual direction', 'Explore concepts', and 'Create moodboards' aligned against a weekly calendar.

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What is a post mortem after a project?

A post-mortem after a project is a review conducted to evaluate project successes and failures. It helps project teams and project leaders learn from past mistakes, identify areas for improvement, and gather insights to improve future projects and team collaboration.

What is another word for project post-mortem?

Other words for project post-mortem include project retrospective, project debrief, project review, post-project analysis, and project post-implementation review.

How do you postmortem a project?

To postmortem a project, its entire lifecycle needs to be reviewed. This includes the project inception, such as the desired goals, timelines and budget. You’ll identify what worked, what didn’t, and why. It’s an essential process for ensuring continuous improvement and business growth.

What are the benefits of a project post-mortem?

The benefits of a post-mortem process include learning from past mistakes and identifying systemic issues in your business workflows. It also promotes continuous improvement and enhances team collaboration for upcoming projects.

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Lucija Bakić

Content Specialist

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