The Postmortem: What It Is, & How to Survive One

The Postmortem: What It Is, & How to Survive One


Postmortem: noun:

  1. An examination and dissection of a dead body to determine cause of death or the changes produced by disease
  2. Discussion of an event after it has occurred
  3. A blame fest where, if you’re not careful, you get attributed with everything that’s wrong in the world

Within the industry, it would appear that those in charge are constantly on the lookout for new buzzwords or catch-phrases to inflict upon their weary staff. The reasons why this insatiable need exists are numerous, but the general consensus is a desire to introduce “fresh thinking” or “novel business practices” which will, at least speciously, be seen to embrace new—and better—ways of working.

The current favorite “blue sky idea” is the postmortem–one word (sometimes hyphenated) that can make grown men cry and cause more personnel fallouts than an open bar at the annual Christmas party.

In essence, postmortems are an attempt to review a recent calamity that has befallen the business with the noble intention of isolating the offending causes and making sure they never happen again.

Of course, the business postmortem is not exactly a new idea. In fact, for years companies have been performing these strange and covert “after the event” brainstorming sessions, dissecting what went wrong and where to assign blame. The trend is on the increase, however, and it’s more and more likely that middle management – or even non-management employees – could hear this particular telling death knell and be called to a room to mull over the aftermath of some diabolical cock up. So, what should you expect?

What They Are

In essence, postmortems are an attempt to review a recent calamity that has befallen the business with the noble intention of isolating the offending causes and making sure they never happen again. The practice nearly always takes the format of a face-to-face meeting (if possible) and involves all of the key players who had a role in the “hiccup”, and hence why you’re all now sitting in a room waiting for the fireworks to happen.

The postmortem meeting is nearly always run by the manager of the new product/service/project.

It’s the previous point which highlights the inherent disdain toward the very idea of the postmortem. Understandably, such meetings get a bad rap for being monumental bitching sessions where the apparent primary goal is to attach blame to someone and clearly identify the cause of why everyone is now having a postmortem in the first place. Ironically, it needn’t be so difficult at all, but more on that later.

The postmortem meeting is nearly always run by the manager of the new product/service/project (whatever has likely stolen a lot of people’s weekends of late and everyone’s current favorite topic around the water cooler) who will start by outlining the original aim of the new endeavor, chronicle the events that led up to the point of failure, explain why these failings occurred (the blame part) and then, finally, identify certain actions that will ensure such an issue is now firmly resigned to history.

A Postmortem’s Purpose is Not to Blame

From the above definition (which I’ve shamelessly appended a third point to, I should add), the key word is “cause” – not “blame”. Though responsibility, and people stepping up to accept theirs, is a significant element of the meeting (see below), the crux of the postmortem process is to locate what went wrong, not who caused the issue in the first place.

Unlike their medical counterparts whose sole purpose is to discover how something died, the business postmortem also has the intention of identifying certain actions that will prevent such a ‘death’ again. It’s a worthy endeavor; trying to learn from past mistakes with the intent of never being in such a similar dire position again. The fact is, as we all fully well know, things do go wrong at work for a myriad of reasons. That said, it would be negligent of us all not to spend the appropriate amount of time focusing on what has obviously been a less than successful enterprise, and then look toward the future – a future where such calamities hopefully don’t exist. To achieve this goal, it’s vital to view the postmortem as a positive act and not the opportunity to absolve oneself of contributing transgressions or deflect blame on to a scapegoat.

Unlike their medical counterparts whose sole purpose is to discover how something died, the business postmortem also has the intention of identifying certain actions that will prevent such a ‘death’ again.

In other words: embrace this rare opportunity to improve the business operating model. Sure, it might mean holding up your hand (or dragging someone else’s up from under the table) in terms of accepting the rap, but try and focus on the shortcomings you are about to remedy along with the process gaps soon to be eradicated and, hopefully, you’ll never having to go through such heartache again. Until something different breaks of course. This is the nature of the business world we live in, however.

Why Postmortems Are Essential

Right after “The building is on fire,” the one thing people would rather not hear from their boss is “We’re having a postmortem.” If conducted poorly they can be soul destroying, inherently confrontational and, at the hands of a bad manager, can quickly descend into an almighty screaming session. Such a scenario is the worst possible outcome of any postmortem.

Postmortems are crucial to finding out what you’re doing wrong in business.

The fact is: it’s rare that someone on a team is totally guiltless when a project nose-dives in spectacular fashion. Everyone could have done a little more, numerous people could have spoken up or intervened when they didn’t and, essentially, if you’re in the room – you’re highly likely to have contributed, at least indirectly, to the problem at hand. However, if the team can accept a degree of “group liability”, though personal blame is still common, people can put the difficulty of highlighting their own failings aside and really improve things going forward for everyone.

Postmortems are crucial to finding out what you’re doing wrong in business. Why was the project late? How can such an overspend be justified? Perhaps you bit off more than you could chew and your original timelines were never feasible in the first place. Maybe you’re not over budget but your estimation model is flawed. All these things are common outcomes from a successful postmortem. In acknowledging where things fell down, you are automatically focusing on what needs to improve.

Invariably, people are going to be defensive as no one likes being told that they’ve messed up.

How to Conduct/Participate/Survive a Successful Postmortem

The core factor in a meeting of this nature is openness and respect. Invariably, people are going to be defensive as no one likes being told that they’ve messed up. Sometimes, however, there’s no other way of putting it, and pointing the finger, though not the primary objective, is an element of moving toward putting things right.

Ultimately, and any project manager worth his or her salt will admit this, the project manager must take the lion’s share of the blame for any business prospect that has resulted in a postmortem. Of course, though the buck stops at him or her, that’s not to say that it wasn’t unceremoniously dropped along the way by other members of the team. A good project manager will take overall responsibility for the failure of his or her project. Likewise, if the opposite of a postmortem was happening (which I can only equate to a post-launch party), the project manager will undoubtedly be seen gladly receiving numerous accolades or comments suggesting his or her personal greatness. That’s how it works.

Worrying signs to look for during a postmortem include when an imbalance of fault starts to appear – especially if that imbalance is pointing toward you. Innately territorial by nature, teams will be seen to protect their own. Developers will usually back each other up for instance, while sales guys certainly band together to make sure their contribution to the current quagmire doesn’t take center stage.

If you feel like you’re being unfairly treated in a postmortem and are receiving more than your fair share of blame (and you’re not the project manager of course), and you genuinely feel the attention is unwarranted, push back and remind the team that one person (unless you’re the project manager of course) can not completely derail a project. There’s always some failsafe, a checklist or testing procedure that could have been put in place to catch monumental catastrophes that—obviously as you’re now arguing about it—unfortunately wasn’t there.

There’s really no other way of surviving a postmortem other than latching on to the prospect of improving the business and everyone’s working environment.

The best thing to do is respectfully accept your actions may not have been perfect, and then quickly turn the conversation toward how things will be different in the future. There’s really no other way of surviving a postmortem other than latching on to the prospect of improving the business and everyone’s working environment.

Personally, I’ve managed some pretty large projects in my career and, confession time, not all of them have gone as swimmingly as they could have. I’ve conducted postmortems to various degrees of success, and the most beneficial ones have always been the discussions where people came with an open mind, a respectful demeanor and left their egos at the door.

The Post-postmortem

Locating issues and then suggesting remedies is all well and good, but if you don’t follow up on your actions (or inactions as it may be) going through the painstaking process of a postmortem is pointless.

The post-postmortem is not as bad as it sounds. In essence, this meeting or review process is merely a catch-up or affirmation that any actions assigned or changes put forward during the postmortem adventure have actually been followed through.

Locating issues and then suggesting remedies is all well and good, but if you don’t follow up on your actions (or inactions as it may be) going through the painstaking process of a postmortem is pointless.

This doesn’t even have to be a meeting. After all, you’ll recall how monumentally non-productive some meetings can be by definition. Instead, schedule a postmortem assessment for a few weeks or even months after the dust has settled from the recent grilling. It’s quite possible to peg a post-postmortem on to the end of a weekly meeting or another such event where the main players are all present. If you have to, you could even send a state-of-the-union postmortem email recap with what has been achieved and what is still outstanding. The important factor is that the process does not end as soon as the meeting is over. Having a postmortem as to why no one heeded the outcome of a previous postmortem is the definition if irony hell.

So, treat the fact that you had a postmortem in the first place as a strong enough reason to adhere to the recommendations arising out of said meeting. The post-postmortem is literally then just telling everyone that everything is now in working order and such cataclysmic recurrences of the events that led up to the postmortem in the first place will never happen again. You hope.


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