5 Tips for a Successful Post-Mortem | ODEA

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5 Tips for a Successful Post-Mortem

What’s the first thought that crosses your mind when you see that post-mortem meeting invitation appear in your inbox after a project is completed? Anxiety? Dread? Understandable. The word “post-mortem” itself even sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be!

Two ODEA team members spent two days getting smarter at the Digital PM Summit hosted by the Bureau of Digital in Memphis, Tennessee. Their favorite presentation was “Finessing your Retrospective” by the brilliant Patrice Embry because post-mortems are something we’re trying to be better about implementing at ODEA. Patrice gave some amazingly easy and simple ways to make a post-mortem more successful (and painless!). We wanted to share our takeaways with you:

1. Let’s Get Weird
Make sure that you take note of anything unusual that happens during the project. These cringe-worthy moments may feel like they should go down in the “never discuss again” book. But re-visiting it during the post-mortem could provide solutions on how to avoid moments like that for future projects. Like that eternity-long pause after you sent your first draft to your client? Or that one awkward meeting that you vowed to never speak of again? Just jot it down.

2. Get Candid
Getting candid feedback from your team is extremely important for a successful post-mortem. This is the time for your team to take a hard look at the good, the bad and the downright ugly. And this can’t be done without honest feedback. Ask the team before the meeting to think about some positives and negatives that occurred during the project. This will ensure they have ample time to gather their thoughts. At ODEA, we’ve adopted the rule of saying one positive thing before giving any negative feedback. We think it’s a great way to assure support within the team and make sure everyone is feeling psychologically safe.

3. The 5 Why’s
A concept brought to us by Japan, the 5 Why’s help narrow down the root cause of an issue. To use the 5 Why’s, take an issue and simply ask the question “why?” until you get to the root cause. It may take more or less than 5 why’s to reach your root cause and sometimes there may not be a solution to the issue, but that’s okay. Either way, it helps you open up dialogue and see things from a different perspective.

4. Separate the Issue from the Person
One of the most dreaded moments in a post-mortem: someone bringing up that thing you dropped the ball on. There is no place for the blame game during a post-mortem. This doesn’t mean you don’t address issues that occurred throughout the project but separate the issue from the person. Instead of saying “Jamie missed the deadline for the first draft” try “a deadline wasn’t met”. Your team will likely be more willing to participate if they know fingers are not going to be pointed.

5. Come Up with a Plan
The reason for a post-mortem is to address the obstacles faced during a project and learn from them. Great ideas and solutions come from everyone. Discuss as a team what you’re specifically going to do next time. The power of a post-mortem comes from specificity, not generalities. If one of your solutions is to communicate more then plan out how you will make that happen. Is it a weekly call? Huddle in Slack every Tuesday? Decide this as a team so that everyone is held accountable when it comes time to execute your plan.

Want to hear more about how to make your post-mortem successful? Check out our latest podcast episode of Brain Lava where Sue and Chelsi discuss their thoughts on post-mortem.


Prefer to read instead of listen? We’ve got you covered. Keep scrolling for a transcript of this episode!


Hi friends, welcome back to Brain Lava. A marketing and tech podcast for curious minds. I’m Chelsi Hardin and I’m the account coordinator here at ODEA. And I’m Sue Lattea one of the project managers at ODEA. Sue and I attended the Digital Project Management Summit at Memphis Tennessee just a few weeks ago. We met some great people, ate some really good food and we learned some really great stuff that we were excited to bring back to the team and share on this podcast.

One of the presentations that we saw was one of the shorter ones. They had what they called this lightning round and the presenters each took 10 minutes and presented their information to us. One of the presenters was Patrice Embrey whose presentation was titled Finessing Your Retrospective and it was really interesting to us because it’s something that we have talked about trying out here at ODEA. Really, that could have been titled finessing your postmortem, I personally don’t associate any good feelings with the word postmortem. I think about the blame game and someone telling me all of the things that I did wrong on a project and honestly when the project’s over I’m just ready for it to be done. That’s kind of why Patrice explained that post mortems fail, no one wants to sit around and talk about where they fell short on a project. We don’t always understand or care that when we don’t perform well on our project it impacts other areas. Again, we’re mentally exhausted when this project is over, let’s move on. There were some ways that Patrice shared that would help you have a painless postmortem and we thought that these ideas were pretty great.

One of her ideas was to talk about the odd or weird things that happened during the project, you know, like when you’re on a conference call with a client and there’s a really long pause after you’ve talked to them about one of the concepts that your team has come up with. You need to think about that conference call and maybe think about what happened and why the client didn’t really like that concept.

The second thing is, get candid feedback from your team. You can do this ahead of time and you should really stress to them it needs to be honest. Postmortem is the time where you lay it all out there you take a look at the good the bad and the ugly. I think even one of the other presenters talked about getting the feedback from the team privately so that they could kind of present it to the team in a positive way, so that nobody felt attacked. That’s the time to be honest and it’s not always easy being in a group setting and putting it all out there, so I agree privately is the best way to go.

A third way that she said that you could improve a postmortem was to employ the five why’s. We could talk about this one all day because we did go to another presentation about the five why’s it’s a concept that the Japanese have brought to us and it’s to get to the root cause of an issue. If you’re in the post-mortem and you have an issue that keeps reoccurring and you can’t figure out what to do, you can try the five why’s and be really honest in your answer to the question why. It might help you get to the root cause of the problem and solve it. Or there might not be any way to solve it and that’s okay, too. This is something that we actually practiced with a few team members just a few days ago and I think it does take practice, you have to figure out why you’re asking that question and really be honest when you do it.

Next, we are isolating the issue from the person who did it, I think this is a tough one because it makes everyone the most uncomfortable in a post-mortem. You’re dreading that moment when someone brings up something that you dropped the ball on, or something that could have been handled a little differently, and no one, including me, wants to be pointed out. Instead of saying Chelsea you blew right through that deadline, try a deadline wasn’t met. Just keep the issues separate from the person to make that person feel more comfortable and avoid the blame game. No one ever wants to feel like they’re attacked.

Last, definitely not least though, probably one of the most important reasons you do a postmortem is to come up with a way to do things better. It’s that simple. You need to discuss it as a team and come up with some great ideas and solutions, because everybody and anybody can help out on the team. Then go ahead and use that plan and tackle your next project better and stronger.

Let us know what you’re thinking about postmortems. We are implementing them here in ODEA and we would love suggestions. It’s all about practice. Shout out what’s working for your team, what’s not just let us know. You can tweet us @teamodea or shoot us a message on Facebook. See you next episode.