Conducting Post-Mortem Debriefs
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
Intentional evaluation of your organization’s successful and failed efforts is crucial to improvement. Most of our best lessons can be learned by simple discussions about what went right and what went wrong.
The “Post-Mortem” helps you do this.
A post-mortem is the analysis done after the fact, the autopsy. It happens using that wonderful thing we call hindsight. To be a learning organization you must conduct post-mortems. Sometimes they also called “debriefs.”
Soon after a major event here at Pioneers I like to call together a team of participants (whether they were leaders in the event or simply participants) and conduct an analysis of what worked and what didn’t work. Documenting the conversation means that the next time we do this type of event, we won’t make the same mistakes and, perhaps more importantly, we will emphasize the successes.
We don’t always conduct post-mortems when we should. I have noticed that we typically don’t do post-mortems in our organization when:
- The event or activity has become routine (danger! – institutionalization is setting in…)
- There is no time scheduled before the event or activity to conduct the post-mortem (a lack of intentionality)
- Success tricks us into complacency (hubris)
- Insecurity due to office politics, relationship issues, and failure of the event (you have a poor learning environment)
Remember this: The purpose of a post-mortem is to LEARN.
Set Some Ground Rules
Here are some simple ground rules you should share with the group at the outset of the post-mortem:
- We are not looking to attach blame or reward success. If we truly see ourselves as a risk taking organization then we will fail and learn from these mistakes. Conversely, success is sometimes due to external factors for which we cannot be credited.
- It’s not personal – no one person is being singled out for evaluation. If it becomes a witch hunt the opportunity for learning is lost.
- Differences of opinion are fine – we don’t all see the situation the same.
- The ability to honestly share is what makes this process worthwhile.
- Notes will be taken and distributed after the meeting. Make sure everybody knows that the intention of the post-mortem is to learn, not gossip or share confidential information.
Somebody has to be the lead dog. Appoint a facilitator who is good at drawing people out and making them feel safe. Senior executives are not always good facilitators because they may be seen as "the man" (or "the woman" as the case may be) and not as one of the team.
- Needs to be very objective and open-minded.
- Needs to watch for people using the debrief time to press their agenda.
- Has to be non-directive in their facilitation of the meeting after the ground rules have been set out.
- Must document the discussion (or assign somebody else).
- For post-mortems with significant ramifications (i.e., “We are going to bet the whole budget on this next year”) the notes from the debrief should be sent to all members for edits/clarifications before they are finalized.
Outline of Discussion
I like to set out the following agenda at the beginning of the meeting. These are the five elements I like to include in every debrief:
- History – Discuss what happened, the goals, timeline of rollout, effort to date, profit or loss. These are the facts behind the event. If you started with metrics, highlight them with analysis of success or failure.
- Environmental analysis – What is happening “out there” that affected us? We recently called off a conference because of too few registrations. We concluded the economic environment was a major factor working against us.
- Organizational analysis – What happened internally that led to the success/failure of the project? Did IT and marketing get on the same page? Was there buy-in from the staff? Did our timeline fall behind because of our team's workload? This discussion can highlight turf battles, areas of organizational weakness or strength, and issues regarding alignment.
- Summary – List 2-3 key items that we want to communicate as “take aways.” If you list too many, people will forget about them so keep it short and simple.
- Follow-up – Assign follow-up items to individuals. These may be to communicate the results, prep a report for management, or make recommendations for the next project.
Intentional post-mortems allow your organization to learn. They can be times of significant improvement if conducted well. Make post-mortems an organizational habit.
(Painting of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt)