How to do a Post-Project Review


Guest Post by Simon Buehring


A guide to the essentials of preparing and holding a post-mortem on your project.

Post-mortem: a grisly way to refer to the end of a project. But projects do have life-cycles: they are conceived in response to a need, they are brought into the world by project managers, they are nutured and raised and managed stage-by-stage, they come to fruition, and finally they are laid to rest.

A post-project review session, or a project post-mortem, is an essential step in evaluating and learning from your project. The short-term benefit of a project post-mortem is that it defines for the customer and the project team exactly what has been achieved by the investment of money, time and sanity into the project.

It also provides a space for knowledge-sharing. Joe the architect may think that the customer specification was too vague. Jane the project manager might be particularly proud of the way she handled the customer’s demands, and feel that more attention should be given to budgetary slippage that resulted from Joe’s insistence on arranging additional meetings with the customer after each new request. Meanwhile, Bob the Configuration Librarian might be convinced that had he been given the proper authority to issue past versions of the project plan, then the situation would have been completely resolved. By allowing each member of the team to air their grievances and compare perspectives, the post-mortem is the perfect place to learn lessons from the project and from the other team members.

The long-term benefit of a project post-mortem are the lessons learned. This applies to both individuals and organisations. Lessons learned through project post-mortems enable organisations to develop project management best practices tailored to the organisational needs. Lessons learned is also a fruitful mechanism for project managers to strengthen their own skill-set.

How to Prepare for a Project Post-Mortem

A truly efficient post-mortem takes three steps:

  • Seek individual feedback through a questionnaire
  • Organise a meeting to share feedback
  • Summarise the feedback in a written document

The benefit of the first step is that participants have time to given considered and constructive feedback. This makes the meeting far more focused and ultimately more productive.

The meeting itself is vital. Do not be tempted to simply summarise feedback questionnaires, as this leaves issues unresolved and conflicting statements unchallenged. If your post-mortem is to have any real meaning, then it should be a discussion, not a statement of opinion.

Writing the feedback up might seem to be an unnecessary chore, but it will also have some of the greatest benefits. A comprehensive project post-mortem is invaluable to the development of best practices – but only if the details are accurately recalled.

Post-Mortem Questions

The three questions that should form the skeleton of any project post-mortem are:

  • What went right?
  • What went wrong?
  • What should we do differently next time?

These questions should be applied to every area of project management: from planning to delivery, from teamwork and communication to risk and change management, from stakeholder input to support staff efficiency.

There are several ways in which you can break down the different areas:

  • Project stages or phases (e.g. determining need, project planning, creating deliverables)
  • Project processes (e.g. planning, risk management, configuration management)
  • Project roles (e.g. support staff, change manager, project board)
  • Key skill areas (e.g. communication, teamwork, management, organisation)
  • Products (e.g. budget, schedule, plans, reports, post-project review questionnaire) 

Conclusion

A project post-mortem is essential to defining what you have (and have not) achieved, to developing project management best practices and to enabling a sense of closure.

The post-mortem session should be conducted as soon after the project as possible, and should be followed up by a written summary of the feedback. This allows all participants to share understanding of the project and to learn important lessons for the future. It also enables an organisation to improve the methodology that it uses to manage projects across the board.


Simon Buehring is a project manager, consultant and trainer. He is the MD for KnowledgeTrain which offers PRINCE2 online courses and project management training.  Simon has extensive experience within the IT industry in the UK and Asia and can be contacted via the KnowledgeTrain website.

Website: www.prince2-online.co.uk


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11 thoughts on “How to do a Post-Project Review

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I strongly believe that, with a right approach, post-mortem becomes a powerful tool. The real challenge is: how do we define processes that will shape an organizational culture so that it puts an accent on knowledge and people?!

  2. Pingback: Why Project Assurance Isn’t Working | Mushcado

  3. I agree with everything that’s said here but to be really effective most organisations need to ask themselves some very fundamental questions about what they are really trying to achieve with their lessons learned/PMR or whatever they choose to call it.

    In 99% of organisations I’ve worked in or with, this is generally a wasted opportunity and most participants see little value in going through the motions. I wrote a two part blog on this a few weeks ago which you might like to have a look at! http://bit.ly/JtcQNF

    Until organisational mindsets change with respect to this activity even the best run reviews will have limited results, and certainly won’t act as a catalyst for improvement as they should.

    • Thanks Ally, I couldn’t agree more and your comment about ‘going through the motions’ is so true. The only thing I’d add to that is that sometimes you get an added energy in a Post Project Review but unfortunately that comes from people trying to justify why they did things to the nth degree and absolving themselves of any blame rather than accepting that nothing is perfect and there are lessons, good and bad, that can be learnt. The fact that this happens at an organizational level too, is as you say, a very real problem.

      Paul

  4. Thank you for the practical review. I have a related poll on LinkedIn asking about what happens after. I hope your readers will consider participating in that as well. http://linkd.in/JWMMsb. The poll directly relates to “A comprehensive project post-mortem is invaluable to the development of best practices – but only if the details are accurately recalled”

    • Thanks for the comment and link to your poll. I tried commenting on it but couldn’t for some reason so here’s what I’d planned on putting (I voted ‘other’ by the way) :

      In my experience the main barrier to a successful post project review is not the willingness of team members to participate, it’s almost always down to senior managers (sometimes directly involved with the project but often not) not wanting mistakes to become public. More often than not the energy that goes into crafting the report that ‘goes public’ far outweighs that which was expended on the project itself which says far more about the personal motivations of those involved than anything else.

  5. Nicely summarized. A great post-mortem includes some measurement of both outcomes and activities, not just qualitative judgement. Focus on learning and process help to avoid the “blame the innocent and praise the guilty” phase of project management.

  6. Great post. I particularly like your point about the lessons applying to both individual and organisation. This is sometime lost.

    What’s more, I think it is really important that the right environment is created when dealing with the successes and failures so that people are honest and open to learning.

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