5 Steps to Run a Project Post-Mortem Meeting [+ Key Questions to Ask]

No project is a complete success or failure.

Even when it seems like a project couldn’t have gone better (or worse), there are always lessons to be learned.

So that the project is post-mortem.

A post-mortem session is not an investigation. It’s a request to uncover all the lessons for the future – no chance to assign blame or expose the local people.

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It is an opportunity to ask: what exactly have we achieved? And more importantly, what could we do better next time?

To help your team get the most out of your post-mortem meeting project, we’ve shared some basic guidelines. Check them out below and make your next autopsy your most productive yet.

A productive post-mortem session is a chance to fully unpack a project and train deeper into why things unfolded the way they did.

The main advantage is the improved efficiency. If done right, you will identify bottlenecks in your processes and improve your workflow.

In addition, a post-mortem session will improve:

  • moral – Can celebrate your winnings in a post-mortem meeting helping bring your team together and creating a sense of camaraderie.
  • communication – Hopefully, as you unpack what went right and what went wrong, you will discover communication gaps that could hamper the project.
  • transparency – A post-mortem meeting invites everyone to share their perspective on the project as a whole. This creates a transparent environment in which you can get to the heart of the topic.

Documentation of the post-mortem meeting

To prepare for your post-mortem meeting, you will need three important documents:

  • A pre-meeting questionnaire – A questionnaire will give your team time to evaluate the project as a whole. At the end you will be able to identify the questionnaire, review patterns and talking points for the session. More about it here.
  • A meeting agenda – An agenda is vital to ensure the meeting runs smoothly. Without one, you won’t have time to solve major problems. Details on how to organize your agenda skip to this section.
  • A meeting worksheet – A worksheet will be helpful in organizing feedback into the correct categories during your team’s meeting. For example, your worksheet should have a section for successes, failures, obstacles, and solutions.
  • A summary document – After the meeting is over, draft a document that covers the key points discussed and actionable steps for the future. More about it here.

How to conduct a productive project post-mortem meeting

1. Make autopsies a standard part of your team’s process.

Post-mortem meetings should be an essential part of your team’s process – for the large projects and the smaller ones. Most teams run them for larger projects with final start and end dates, but they can be equally useful for smaller or ongoing projects.

Even if “post mortem” means quite literally after deathYour team doesn’t have to wait for the end of a large, long-term project to get value from a retrospective evaluation.

As she is fleshing out during the kick-off phase of a project plan, mini autopsies attaches to key milestones. These pulse checks give your team a chance to better understand how a project is progressing – and hopefully identify potential problems before they cause permanent damage.

Once the project is officially complete, don’t wait too long to plan the final autopsy or people will mentally have moved on. In fact, you should plan the post-mortem when you are building the full project plan out so everyone knows that there is an expected part of the follow-up project.

2. Send an autopsy questionnaire before the actual meeting.

The session itself should not be scheduled for more than an hour. Not everyone will have a chance to speak, and some smaller (but still important) problems may not have much time for discussion. And to be honest, not everyone has their say in this type of forum.

Using a pre-meeting questionnaire means everyone on your team has an equal chance to share their thoughts, and no stray detail flies under the radar.

The questionnaire also offers the opportunity for people to organize themselves before the meeting. People can find out why certain things happened (or didn’t happen) so they can bring causes and possible solutions to the meeting – not just missteps or hastily formulated theories.

For example, if a project of the motives required on your team to work around the clock getting their services done on time, why is that happening? Was the project schedule badly set up? Have inexperienced people been assigned to the wrong tasks?

The responses from the questionnaire should inform the post-mortem session on the agenda, with the focus of the discussion on topics that had the greatest impact. The questionnaire also means that the “smaller ones” are not overlooked during the complete autopsy.

3. Choose a moderator to keep the meeting on track.

The aim of a project post-mortem is to constructively evaluate what the project team has achieved and what could have been done better.

For this discussion to be productive, someone needs to keep the conversation polite, focused, and moving forward. This is where the meeting moderator comes in.

Provide a moderator in front of the in-person meeting who can stay on the agenda and guide the discussion in the event they hand off gets off. The presenter does not have to be the project manager or a member of your leadership team, he needs to feel just good to take responsibility.

4. Set a clear agenda.

With so many details to deal with in such a short amount of time, post-mortem meetings can easily get off track. Help keep the discussion at bay by setting up a clear agenda in advance:

Start with a summary The main goals of the project, goes briefly about the goals and metrics established on the kick-off. This part should take no more than five minutes and serve as a quick refresher on your team’s goals.

In short, check the results. Once you’ve gone over the primary goals, take a few minutes to review the project’s final results. This should be a simple assessment of whether the project meets your team’s metrics for success. Did you achieve the goals you set?

Immerse yourself in the Why or why not. Now is the time to find out why the project went this way and how the team members are feeling about it. This discussion is meant to take up the majority of the session. In this section we have explained how to structure your exam [jump to last section].

5. Make sure the loop is closed.

The post-mortem session is only one step from the post-mortem process.

The final outcome of the questionnaire and meeting should be a post-mortem document outlining conclusions of the investigation and actionable takeaways for the future.

And that query is not just about what went well or bad, but what is going to change for the future, and how? What has led to great successes here that we can bottle and use for other projects?

Circulate the post-mortem Roundup document to participants to get their unsubscribe. Then distribute the department-wide takeaways for future projects to everyone.

So what exactly is a post-mortem investigating? There are a couple of different cross sections to formulate your request. The basic categories of the investigation are planning, execution, results and communication.

Within each category you should ask quantitatively, qualitative, and subjective Ask:

Quantitative questions of project implementation to assess.

These are your standard yes or no questions.

  • Have deadlines been met or missed?
  • Do we offer all the services outlined under the project?
  • Have predefined success criteria been achieved?
  • Were outline processes and procedures followed?
  • Was there a budget overrun?

As you look at the project from this perspective, a key underlying question is always: Was the plan a good one? Did we follow the plan? Was the plan bad? Why?

Any quantitative questions you ask should eventually lead back to this overarching topic.

Qualitative questions to go over the data.

These open questions should evaluate the project about the hard data and planning.

  • Did we deliver the work to the high standards that we and our customer expect?
  • Does the customer share?
  • Did people feel they had the resources, information, and support they needed to do their own jobs?
  • Have campaign criteria or task expectations been poorly defined or communicated?

In both quantitative and qualitative studies, make sure you understand exactly what worked well and what did not.

For example, do you have a delivery date for customers to share their personalities, but no time for the built-in exam? Perhaps the client sent them in on time (according to the project plan), but they weren’t enough for the needs of the project.

Or did a lack of account manager oversight lead a new PPC campaign manager to overspend the client’s advertising budget?

Getting into the details will help to identify the root of the problems.

Understanding subjective questions employee perspective

Subjective questions help assess how your team members are feeling and can help identify signs of burnout and worrying exhaustion early on.

These questions allow the executives to know what processes and their team work best and help them to plan future projects.

  • What did people like most and least about this project?
  • How was the cooperation with the customer?
  • What changes would you make to these types of projects in the future?
  • How could work go smoothly with this client or with certain departments in the future?
  • Do you want to work on a similar type of project again? If not why not?

A post mortem session will help your team continuously improve on your process. Remember that an autopsy, which has no impact on future measures, is a waste of time. With this in mind, make sure you follow on your insights to generate better results on future projects.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated for richness.

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