Whether your last campaign was a boom or disappointment or somewhere in-between, there’s always room for some insights to make the next project better. That’s where the post-mortem meeting comes in.
Post-mortem meetings have long been a staple for us to look back at a campaign or its major milestones. They’re a chance to review progress and discuss a project’s positives and negatives — both to the public, and within the team.
Everyone wants to succeed, but failure can be our greatest teacher. Some things work, and some things don’t. But you’ll never know until you test it out. Failure might not immediately teach you what you want, but it will tell you what you don’t want. Sometimes, that’s the most valuable takeaway.
Except, of course, if you have a crushing fear of failure. Or worse, the insatiable need to always succeed. The latter is especially dangerous because it’s easy to fall into the trap of hyper-focusing on your success. The organizations that do this always lead easy projects. They never risk expansion or growth, because risks might mean losses. After a decade or two, these organizations aren’t in service. That’s because they focus on the negatives of change. Then they miss out on all the positive outcomes that change brings.
Usually, the problem with post-mortem meetings isn’t the format itself. If they’re not working for your organization, this might be a case of “user error.”Here are a few things to keep in mind to make your next post-mortem meeting successful.
1. Post-Mortem Meetings Are Organized
The most successful post-mortem meetings have a clear agenda. Generally, post-mortems answer three major points (in this order):
- What went right?
- What went wrong?
- How could we do things better for next time?
For participants to get the most out of these meetings, they need to prepare themselves well in advance. If it’s a particularly large group, you may find it helpful to send out a simple questionnaire beforehand. Tools like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms streamline the collection and review process.
What’s more, good post-mortem meetings involve active participation and listening. Although we hold them so dear to our hearts, smartphones and tablets should be left outside the meeting room. Post-mortems are a time to get away from our devices and move toward thought-provoking discussion. So unless that laptop is there for taking notes or reviewing data, keep your screens in standby mode.
2. There’s Consistency
Post-mortem meetings provide valuable opportunities to create future actions and reaffirm our positive workflows. When conducted during project milestones or completions, they’re proven to help reduce project costs and instill team cohesion. But post-mortems are also like going to the gym: if you only do it once in a while, you’re not going to see any gains. If you do it consistently, you’ll notice incremental progress. If you’re holding post-mortems (and you really should), then everyone should be aware before the campaign’s over, well in advance of the meeting date.
This next point is an issue that transcends all meetings, but for the love of lunch, reserve the impromptu meetings for emergencies only. They’re a rude interruption. Just ask anyone who’s simultaneously trying to eat a sandwich at their desk, get work done, and listen to a colleague. Try as they may, their rhythm is broken because they have to drop their focus. Unless something’s on fire, the meeting can probably wait until everyone’s finished their sandwiches.
I’ve also seen plenty of people get pulled into post-mortem meetings at the last second because they worked on some bullet-point or helped finish a deliverable, but they neither led the campaign or played a key role in its development. These employees usually feel blindsided. They come into the meeting confused beforehand, nervous during, and hyperventilating afterward. That’s because the lack of notice makes them feel unprepared, and somehow at fault.
If you practice consistency with your project post-mortems, your staff will notice (and thank you for it, too).
3. Post-Mortems Invite Candor
Another way to put that is “they’re not toxic.” And if you take away anything from this post, that should be it. Maybe it’s in the name “post-mortem,” but some people have a looming sense of dread when it comes to reviewing their performance. But Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, championed candor and a blameless working environment in his autobiography, Creativity, Inc.:
“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”
Let’s be clear: Post-mortem meetings should never devolve into finger-pointing blame-games. Toxic meetings generate toxic environments, work, and outcomes. They create hostilities and defensiveness, which lead to burnout and poor performance. Which is why it’s so important for organizations to value candor without fading into malicious criticism.
Avoid toxic post-mortems and invite candor by putting everyone at ease early. Let your staff know that these post-mortem meetings are in place for everyone to get better, and that a toxic “blame-game” will not be tolerated. That should encourage employees to speak up and voice their opinions, without fearing reprimands or contempt from their colleagues. Like visiting your doctor, you can only diagnose the problem once you feel comfortable enough to let someone know about it.
When you stop thinking of post-mortem meetings as performance reviews and start thinking of them as team-building exercises, you’re likely going to get both more insight and goodwill around your office.
4. A Post-Mortem Meeting Uses “Goldilocks” Data
Not too much + not too little = just right.
We all like to crunch numbers and start segmenting away when a campaign is over. It’s never been more important for organizations to look at their numbers to determine who’s giving, how much, where from, and how come.
But equally disruptive issues arise when you start paying too much attention to your data. Not only can data reliance impede innovation, it locks you into making organizational decisions regardless of logistics and staff sentiment. Project improvements depend largely on teams’ interactions and workflows. So make sure you’re taking their feelings into account. Here are some example questions to ask:
- Were particular milestones completed on time and in a satisfactory manner?
- Did anyone feel bogged down, or did anyone feel like they were in charge of too many tasks (bottlenecks)?
- How would you approach certain tasks if you were given a second opportunity?
- Did we meet or exceed the amount of time budgeted for this project?
The more uncomfortable some of the answers are, the more likely you’re headed in the right direction. Remember, a post-mortem meeting is an opportunity to openly discuss your shortcomings as well as your accomplishments.
5. Post-Mortems Are A Gateway For Action
No good post-mortem meeting ever happens in a vacuum. At the conclusion of the meeting, there need to be some action items laid out so your organization receives clear instructions on how to improve for the next campaign or project.
It can be as simple as asking, “What actions do we need to take to ensure our projects are better for the future?” Let the data and the metrics inform your decisions; but again, be sure to prioritize your staff’s sentiment.
Sometimes the answers aren’t so readily available. Whenever this happens, it’s good to break down the overarching action-items question into a series of “if-why-because” statements. Here’s an example of this in action:
- If you didn’t receive as many campaign referrals from Facebook as anticipated, don’t make your action plan to boost social reach. That’s a generic diagnosis and likely a symptom of a larger landscape of problems.
- Instead, get to the heart of the matter. Ask, “Why was our social reach lower than last year?”
- Whoever’s managing your social media might respond, “Because Facebook’s new News Feed algorithm usually shows branded posts lower than posts from personal profile pages.”
- Then your organization can make a more informed decision, rather than spraying generic solutions. The answer might be to boost more posts leading up to the event, or to rely more on peer-to-peer fundraisers to share with their networks, or to take a deeper look into social media’s ROI regarding campaign promotion, etc.
Your organization should also prioritize its future actions, so the most important tasks receive the most visibility and care. The MoSCoW method is used often in Web design and software engineering to determine the importance of each action:
- Must have: Critical actions that take top priority moving forward.
- Should have: Solutions that are important to future projects, but not necessary components of the final product.
- Could have: Items that would be nice to have completed, but don’t take priority or don’t meet your budget.
- Won’t have: The least-important, less-focused action items go here. In time, the “won’t-haves” may turn into “could-haves” or even “should-haves,” but that’s unlikely for the next immediate project iteration.
When post-mortem meetings are focused, honest, and balanced, they turn into something much more than the end of a project — they can be the beginning of a more successful future outcome. While that requires preparedness and compassion from all participating parties, you’ll notice that a successful post-mortem — whether for a successful or underwhelming project — will yield better results from your team moving forward.