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.
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)
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.