3 Highly Effective Tips For A Successful Project Post Mortem

3 Highly Effective Tips For A Successful Project Post Mortem

A project post mortem, colloquially referred to as a ‘project retrospective,’ may be defined as a “process that has been initiated for evaluating the success (or failure) of a project's ability to meet business goals.” 
Such business related post mortems are typically conducted when the project has been concluded. They are useful tools for understanding the success (or lack of it thereof) of a project.

They may also be used at the conclusion of a specific stage of a multi-phase project. The actual term post mortem is a Latin derivative and in the literal sense means "after death." In the healthcare industry, this term is widely used to describe the examination of a cadaver so as to be able to determine the cause of death.  
Following are some tips for deriving the most out of a single or a series of ‘project post mortem’ meetings:

Have a Post Mortem for Each and Every Individual Project Regardless of Size and Outcome

Project post mortems are a really great learning experience and serve as road side indicators to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. A great sage once stated that, ”Only a fool trips over the same stone twice.” This is where a project post mortem comes into its own.

Even with small projects, the odds are that there will be teeny tiny things that would help you increase your learning on how to do things when a bigger project is under consideration. Let us take the example of power outages. 

In a small single day project, a few minutes of a power outage would merely mean little lost time. But in a bigger project, where a client is breathing down the neck and time is critical, it might make sense to have back up power supply available.  

Another point to note is that a ‘Project post mortem” should be conducted even if the project was successful beyond the wildest dreams of the organizers. The key learning points might be used to make sure that they may be replicated in other projects as well.

Have a Pre-Planned Agenda Ready

As with all other types of meetings, a project post mortem meeting should also have a pre-defined agenda. This will help make sure that there is zero possibility of the discussion going off the tangent and thereby wasting the precious time of the participants of the meeting.

Have a Positive Mindset Beforehand

This is by far the most important tip on this list. The whole point of a project post mortem is not to degrade and humiliate team members based on what may have gone wrong, nor should a post mortem be conducted to play the ‘blame game’ and create scapegoats.  

The point of the whole process is not to score or deduct points for subsequent performance appraisal of the various subordinates and team members, but rather to help seek out constructive lessons that would be useful for future projects and their successful conclusion.

The Pro’s and Con’s of Small Project Teams

a woman leader is talking to her small team of four

Project post mortems are intended to give you a chance to evaluate the results of your project, consider what went well and what didn’t, and learn what you can in order to improve the results of the next project.

In our most recent project post mortem, we were struck by how much easier it was, this last time anyway, to work with a small group. Here is how we evaluated the pros and cons. Hopefully our experience will help you as you design your next project team.


  • It is easier to build collaborative relationships.
  • The project leader can make connections personally to each individual in order to articulate goals and gain agreement and commitment.
  • With team members handling multiple responsibilities, they have a lot more freedom to manage their wide-ranging roles.
  • Regular check-ins and small meetings are handled quickly and efficiently.
  • It is easier to shape a culture that suits the team. Engaged team members are excited about their work and committed to project goals.


  • Team members have to wear several hats at once. Accountability is more difficult to assign.
  • Not all tasks can be handled by the team. You will need to outsource some work to allow your team members to do what they do best.

Perhaps the greatest “plus” is flexibility. With a small group, you can adjust course as needed with little delay or upset. If you have selected the team members for their expertise, their compatibility, their work ethic and their practice of communicating openly, you will have a team that works well together. Your job becomes quite simple: keep them on track and be available and understanding of their needs. 

Is There Room for a Devil’s Advocate on Your Project Team?

A man is pondering whether to listen to the devil on one shoulder or the angel on the other

Much is being said these days about the importance of optimism in the building and sustaining of a positive work environment and successful project teams. But, as you approach your project post mortem, consider how the project might have been run differently (and even had a better outcome), if you had paid more attention to the devil’s advocate on the team.

We all love the optimists who believe in a rosy future. As we work together on a project team, they are the ones who cheerlead and say “yes, we can” and “why not.” These positive thinkers energize the team and keep us moving forward. We all feel good about working and planning together. 

But remember what happened when one of the project team members said, “Hold on. Wait a minute. This won’t work.” How did you react? Did you just shut down the skeptic? Were you simply too impatient to keep moving on the smooth, easy path ahead?

As you use a project post mortem to review the outcome of your recent project, also evaluate how it might have gone more smoothly if you had listened to the pessimist during the definition, planning or execution stages. You need to be aware all along of what could go wrong. You need to carefully weigh possible challenges. You need to face how the project plan could fail. You need to take a step backward when things are not going as you had hoped (a mini project post mortem) and think about how these backward steps could affect the entire success of the project in the long-term.

Every project team needs at least one person who can foresee and highlight potential obstacles to success. And every project team needs to listen when those potential problems are raised. The optimists should continue in their cheerleading mode only after they:

  • Have developed strategies to prevent project problems
  • Are able to plan a reasonable project budget and project timeline
  • Have outlined clear-cut steps for project execution
  • Have examined all risks and what to do in case of project failure

And then, they need to pay attention during project execution to the pessimist’s concerns. If issues are raised, listen to them and be sure you balance potential problems with workable solutions. 

Think Agile and Waterfall As Part of Your Project Post Mortem

photo of a giraffe looking over a fence

As you convene your project post mortem team to take a look over the fence at what went right and what went wrong, it may be smart to think through your basic methodology. Was your process well chosen for and matched to the project goals and objectives?

Project post mortem experts generally acknowledge two basic project management methodologies: the waterfall model and the agile methodology. Projects and project leaders usually have a preference for one or the other. But there are pros and cons to both that could be part of the project design and execution. Often you can use a combination of both.

Waterfall Project Management Approach
In general, this project management method is linear and sequential. It cascades through steps, one after the other, from feasibility through planning and design, into the build, test, produce and maintenance phases. The difficulties in this project management model are that it is inflexible. Changes are often time consuming and difficult. You typically need all the requirements upfront and testing usually does not occur until late in the game. The pros are that the plan is clear, thoughtful, well-documented and fully fleshed out from the beginning.

Agile Project Management Approach
In general, development using the agile project management approach is highly iterative. There is far less planning upfront than the waterfall model so it allows for learning and changing requirements over time. The problems encountered are that, at least initially, the plan is less easy to understand and documentation is often neglected. The pluses are that working prototypes can be delivered faster, lessons can be learned more quickly, and changes can be incorporated along the way and even late in the development.

In your next project post mortem, try to decide if any aspects of the two methods played a role in your success or failure.  For example, was the project business case and plan good enough?  Did your project team prototype and learn and innovate fast enough?

In general, consider the waterfall approach for more static and complex projects where there are unlikely to be many changes after the project planning process. And consider Agile for those projects where multiple changes and innovations are required for project success. 

If flexibility is integral to the success of your project, choose aspects from Agile Project Management. If straightforward design and delivery is important, choose aspects from the traditional waterfall project design.

Stop Ignoring These 10 Project Management Attributes

a dart is in the bull's eye of a target that has 10 individual rings

Unfortunately, really good project managers seem rare. That is because as more work is being accomplished through projects and project teams, few exhibit the range of project leadership skills required to succeed. 

The best project managers are both very detail-oriented and also very politically and emotionally savvy. They have to work effectively with the numbers as well as with the people. Good project managers need to be able to harness the strengths of their team while they navigate the corporate halls to garner support from senior management, secure resources, adapt to change and keep the project moving forward at reasonable speed. A very challenging role as you can tell from so many project post mortems that point to a lack of effective project leadership as the cause of failure…

When you are either appointing a project manager or considering taking on the role yourself, here is a list of ten attributes of effective project managers based upon over 20 years of project post mortem research. Effective project managers know how to:

  1. Create Project Clarity. 
    Effective project managers communicate and commit to clear project goals, roles and processes from the very beginning so project sponsors, team members, stakeholders and company leaders are on the same page.  You will know you are headed in the right direction when everyone agrees with the business case, goals, success metrics, scope, deliverables, roles and project plan.

  2. Manage Project Change.
    Effective project managers evaluate requested changes in scope so they can advise stakeholders on the risks and benefits of extending the project beyond the original plan.  You know you are headed in the right direction when the project team is effectively balancing cost, quality, and time success criteria in the eyes of their key stakeholders.

  3. Build a High Performance Project Team.
    Effective project managers select team members according to the skills, competencies, working styles and attitudes needed for individual and collective success.  Project success is dramatically affected by the relationships within the team and the ability to function as a cohesive unit.  It is the project leader’s job to create the project team environment required for team members learn to effectively work together to solve problems even in the face of conflict.

  4. Hold People Accountable.
    Effective project managers hold themselves, the team and each team member accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities so the project can be a success.  You know you are headed in the right direction when all stakeholders believe that accountability was important and key deadlines and deliverables were met or appropriately revised to meet changed circumstances.  

  5. Manage and Mitigate Project Risk.
    Effective project managers anticipate and plan for risk so they can anticipate and deal with situations that threaten the success of the project.  They utilize a clear and disciplined approach to identify, control, and reduce potential business and project problems upfront with a clear process to handle unexpected issues.  They brainstorm, identify, and prioritize potential and actual risks with key stakeholders, based upon past projects, a risk profile, and proportionate to the project schedule and project budget.

  6. Utilize Scenario Planning.
    Effective project managers work with team members to come up with contingency scenarios to implement when things go awry so that they have a clear game plan when circumstances change.

  7. Set and Manage Expectations.
    Effective project managers set and manage expectations with stakeholders and with team members in terms of timing, scope, quality and budget early and often.  You know you are headed in the right direction when project assumptions, costs, quality, and time parameters are being continuously reviewed and balanced to ensure that the project is on target.  

  8. Ensure Appropriate Project Resources.
     Effective project managers maneuver at the highest corporate levels to secure adequate resources and support to ensure project success.  Bad project managers make unrealistic or inadequate assumptions about people’s availability or capability vis-à-vis the project visibility, importance, goals, scope, complexity or timeline.

  9. Align with Key Stakeholders.
    Effective project managers keep all key stakeholders engaged throughout the process.  They identify and partner with all internal and external project stakeholders and know what “each one cares about and why.” Bad project managers are unclear who the internal and external project stakeholders are and what they care most about.

  10. Communicate Up, Down and Sideways.
    Effective project managers keep in touch with upper management to advise of progress, stay close to team members who need to keep on track and maintain focus on the project at hand, and are tuned in across functions so the organization as a whole is well informed of the project’s progress and the importance of the project’s success to the business. They ensure the right people get the right information at the right time regarding their responsibilities, coordination with others, project status, and decisions.

Project Post Mortem: When the Work is Done, What Next

a cartoon of 5 oarsmen being coached by a coxswain

The project is over and already the team is beginning to disperse. Many of the project team members are ready to move on to their next assignment. But don’t let them go until you have that critical final meeting to debrief what worked and what didn’t. 

You need to evaluate the various stages of the project and ask the difficult questions. Were you in sync as a project team or were you sometimes working at cross purposes? Was the goal of the project clearly articulated and individual roles and responsibilities specifically delineated? Were you able to stay on budget and deliver on time? How flexible were you when asked to change project direction or scope by senior management? All in all, would you consider the project a success?

What we find when we facilitate project post mortems is that the success or failure of a project most often depends upon the strength of the team. Effective teams have what it takes to manage projects successfully. Sure there are unexpected circumstances that derail projects like the sudden loss of funding or a misdiagnosed risk but most obstacles to project success can be overcome if the team is a high performing one.

One of the most significant factors in a project team’s success is their level of effective communication. When the communication is unclear, spotty or ineffective, the team falls apart and so do their projects. Based upon twenty years running project post mortems, two-thirds of project team members listed ineffective communication as the number one obstacle to success. Expectations were unclear, roles were fuzzy, conflicts went unresolved, information was not shared, trust was lacking, silos were built and collaboration suffered. The picture is not a pretty one and you can see how, without their oars in sync and pulling in the same direction, the project boat would flounder and make little headway.

The second greatest barrier to success listed has been the lack of forming and kicking off the project team. At the very beginning of the project you should plan to go slow to, later, be able to go fast. Project team members need to participate in understanding the underlying business case and defining the specific goals and success metrics of the project.  Project team members need to get to know one another’s strengths, desires and weaknesses.  Project team members need to clearly establish lines of accountability and to agree upon how to solve problems and make decisions.

The bottom line? Over and over in project post mortems it becomes clear how important it is to build the foundation of a project team that communicates well, agrees on a common goal and knows how to get there. 

How to Best Learn from a Big Project Failure

A cartoon man with a pick axe walks away from the mine having missed  reaching the money goal

What can you learn from a failed project? Lots.

Sometimes the most valuable aspect of a project is what you can learn from its failure. This may not be a “happy place” for the project leader but, done right, a well-designed project post mortem can help you and your key project stakeholders reduce and overcome problems on the next, and perhaps even more critical, project. 

The key to an effective project post mortem is being rigorous about asking the hard and relevant questions that will highlight exactly what went well, what went wrong and how can we do it better next time. The objective, of course, is to learn what happened and why in a way that makes sense for your business strategy and unique organizational culture. You and your team want to be smarter next time so you can bring in projects faster, smoother, better and with each and every milestone met.

Here are some guidelines for an effective project post mortem session:

1. Start at the beginning. 
What was the original business case, context and purpose of the project? So that the conversation stays on target, restate the project goals and objectives. Set the stage for some uncomfortable discussions but be clear on the reason for the post mortem exercise—avoiding the pain of making the same mistakes again.

2. Appreciate what went well.
It can be tempting, especially for engineering teams, to focus on all of the problems and mistakes.  This is a mistake.  Even brutally failed projects provide something of value in terms of what went well, what was learned, what barriers were broken and what new team members were added.  Take the time to appreciate and celebrate the bright spots—no  matter how small they may be—or  be at risk for dis-engaging your project team members.

3. Agree upon the facts – where and how badly did you fail?
Make a prioritized and agreed-upon list of the key objectives, deliverables and targets you missed.   It is difficult to identify opportunities for improvement until everyone agrees upon where and how badly you failed. 

4. Then talk about why you failed at achieving those project targets. 
Here is where you can garner some of the most value from a formal project review. Dig deep to uncover root causes in the areas of project definition, project planning, project execution and project change control. For example, if Jim and his team did not meet their delivery target, find out why. Did they not have the resources they needed in time? Did the scope change unexpectedly?  Were project constraints underestimated?  Did the project sponsor not pull their weight?  Was the plan or schedule not clear? Was the team leader up to the task?  Did Jim fail to communicate the timing to his crew?  You get the idea…have the tough and transparent discussions to uncover what happened so that you do not repeat the same mistakes.

5. Then move to the critical few lessons learned. 
What could have been done differently that would actually be implementable in your unique organizational culture? What needs to change next time that is possible? It could be as simple as sharing the schedule on SharePoint across the entire team so everyone knows their deadlines. Or Jim may need either access to more skilled employees or better leadership, communication and decision making skills. Each goal missed should have clear plans to change behaviors or planning so that the team learns how to do it better next time.

6. Finalize the session with barriers to success going forward. 
Assuming that you have agreement on what to continue doing, what to stop doing and what to start doing to better ensure project success, it is now time to rank potential barriers to success and a clear plan to overcome them.  Use this time to identify and implement only the critical few changes that have a chance for success in your unique performance environment.

It may be tempting to avoid the pain of reviewing a highly strategic, visible, political or complex project that failed. But keep the project post mortem in the context of getting better, faster, cheaper and smarter in the future.

Learn more at: http://www.lsaglobal.com/project-post-mortem-training-consulting/