Postmortems don’t have a to be a dreary round of busy-work.
For me, postmortems are the most valuable process that I have my teams do.
Every time that we do a postmortem round, the team gets more motivated, change accelerates, and any metric of our choosing starts to improve.
If that sounds like a magical process, it kind of is.
And with the right tricks, postmortems will change your business and become enjoyable for everyone.
What is a postmortem?
A postmortem is a process where you review the project, the results, and decide what to do next. It also produces a postmortem document that recaps everything.
Too often, teams will finish a project and immediately move on to the next without really evaluating if they should make bigger changes based on the results that they’re seeing. It’s no one’s fault, we all have plenty of projects on our plate. We also make the assumption that someone else is looking at the bigger picture. And if we all assume someone else will do it, no one ends up doing it.
Postmortems break the cycle of simply moving on to the next projects. And they follow an easy 4 step process:
- Fill out a postmortem template.
- Teams fill in their sections.
- Discuss why you got the results that you did.
- Make decisions on what to change.
Then repeat for the next project.
When using this process, the 10 tricks below will make it much more impactful.
What’s the difference between a postmortem and a retrospective?
Basically, a postmortem and a retrospective are the same things. They’re both processes that companies use to collect data on a project, analyze it as a team, and decide how to act based on those results.
The key difference is that retrospectives are a more formal version and used within the Agile framework. For teams that adhere to strict Agile processes, they’ll use the term retrospective more often and follow the prescribed retrospective process closely. We go really deep on how Agile retrospectives work here.
And if you want guidance on specific topics, we have guides on the ideal retrospective questions, the perfect retrospective meeting agenda, which retrospective tools to use, retrospective ideas to make them more exciting, and everything you ever wanted to know about the perfect retrospective meeting.
Postmortems, on the other hand, merely refer to the process of reviewing results and making decisions on what to do as a team. There’s no official process to follow. every team does them slightly differently. Let’s jump into the postmortem tricks.
1: Dial in Your Postmortem Report
I like to include a few standard sections in my postmortem reports:
- Dates the project was live
- Why we launched what we launched (the hypothesis of the project)
- What we launched (screenshots and plenty of contextual data on exactly what was changed)
- The results (whatever metrics you’re tracking against)
- Feedback or problems from each team (each team involved should have their own section to add their observations)
- Why did we get the results that we did?
- What are our action steps and who owns each step?
Definitely customize the first portion of the template based on the types of projects that you’re working with. For example, all of these types of projects would have slightly different metrics and details on what was shipped:
- New product launch
- Paid marketing campaign
- A/B test
- Sales outreach campaign
- Infrastructure refactoring
- Internal process redesign
Whenever I have a team shipping this type of project repeatedly, I’ll tailor the postmortem template to that project so it’s even easier for the team to fill out.
You’ll notice that I only included two questions at the end, this is where the bulk of the postmortem discussion will focus:
- Why did we achieve the results that we achieved?
- What are we going to do differently?
These two questions keep it pretty tight. Be careful about adding too many questions which usually results in an overlap between the questions. If people get the sense that they’re covering the same ground repeatedly, the whole thing starts to feel like busy work.
2: Thoroughly Document the Project
In six months, someone will come back to this postmortem. They’ll be wanting to understand what the project was and what everyone learned from it.
One common mistake I’ve made in the past is skimping on showing what the project actually included. I’m always tempted to list the results, problems, actions steps, and leave it at that.
Unfortunately, the action steps and learnings will be less than helpful.
There won’t be any context about what actually shipped.
During all of my postmortems, I require that my team’s document the full project. It’s always slightly different depending on the type of project but includes some basic items:
- Links to all relevant work docs
- Screenshots of anything that went live
- Start and end dates
- The results that were produced from the project (revenue, traffic, leads, any metric that’s relevant)
I like to err on the side of having too much documentation about the project itself. Memories get fuzzy fast and folks that join the company after the project will have zero context about what happened.
On numerous occasions, I discovered a problem or a new insight that completely changed how we had to evaluate a previous project. Thorough documentation during my postmortems gave me all the context that I need to retrace the project. Without that context, I would have been guessing at what I no longer remembered.
3: Use Group Postmortems on Major Projects
The larger the project, the more people that need to be involved in the postmortem.
I know that this can feel like herding cats sometimes. But it’s well worth the extra effort over the long run.
If you run postmortems with too small of a team and make a bunch of decisions, other teams that feel impacted by those decisions will push back. For people to accept change, they need to feel part of the process.
Strategically invite the right folks to your postmortems to get everyone onboard with the changes that need to be made later.
And be careful about inviting too many people, groups larger than 7 get unwieldy and unproductive. Make every slot count.
4: Have Individuals Fill Out PostMortems for Small Projects
Meetings get a bad rap because they’re used as a default for everything.
Not every postmortem needs to be a giant, collaborative effort.
For smaller projects that impact fewer people, I’ll simply assign the entire postmortem to the person that led the project. They still have to fill everything out and get the final version approved by me but there’s no meeting or group discussion.
This works really well for projects that don’t span across multiple teams like A/B tests on a landing page or a few new outreach emails from the sales team. Since most teams won’t be impacted by these tests and probably don’t care what happened, the postmortem can be done by a single person.
There’s still a major benefit from circulating the postmortem in case other folks are curious but there’s little value in getting dedicated time from a larger group.
5: Invite the Right Folks to the PostMortem Meeting
Inviting the right group to the postmortem call is a delicate balance.
You want a few senior folks that can provide the larger context while also ensuring large action steps can get completed following the meeting.
Junior folks are also important to provide insight on the nitty-gritty of the project and to show them that their feedback gets implemented.
When I’ve had too many senior folks in these calls, too many details get glossed over. Then the team keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. If there are not 1-2 senior folks, major action steps won’t get any attention which saps the team’s morale later.
I follow these guidelines when putting together an attendee list for my postmortem calls:
- Limit the meeting to 7 people
- Have 1-2 senior level folks also join the call. They could either be my peer or one level above me. Having my boss attend is a good way to keep her/him informed while being able to add extra authority to any key action steps that come up. Inviting a peer that’s impacted by the project is a good way to build connections across teams.
- If there’s a stakeholder that’s directly impacted by the project, get that person in the meeting. For example, someone on sales needs to attend the postmortem for a marketing campaign to give feedback on how the campaign impacted the sales pipeline. For product releases, someone from customer support should absolutely attend.
- For the rest of the meeting slots, prioritize the folks that did the most work on the project.
6: Have Everyone Fill Out Their Sections Before the Meeting
The fastest way to make a meeting bore everyone to tears is by having each person summarize their feedback during the meeting itself. It’s repetitive, dry, and doesn’t help anyone accomplish anything.
Instead, I focus my postmortem meetings on spirited debates. That’s how real issues get explored and solved. There’s just not enough time to go through everyone’s feedback for the first time and deeply explore the core problems.
The trick is to have everyone fill out their feedback sections in the postmortem call before the meeting itself. I also tell the attendees that we won’t be summarizing the feedback, everyone is expected to have reviewed the notes before the call starts.
This frees up the entire call for debate and making decisions on actions steps.
Sounds great in theory right? It will take some time before everyone has built the habits to prep for these meetings. Here are a few tricks I use to get people to fill their section out:
- Always fill out your section with feedback the night before. The easiest way to get people to complete tasks is by upholding the standard yourself. Don’t expect anyone else to fill these out if you don’t.
- If anyone tries to summarize their feedback comments during the meeting, politely remind them that everyone has reviewed their feedback and then ask them a specific question that moves the decision forward. We all have ingrained habits to summarize so gentle reminders get us back on track.
- When people forget to add feedback, remind them of the expectations and that they’re letting the rest of the team down by not getting their feedback in on time. If it becomes an ongoing problem, give the meeting slot to someone else that is willing prep for the meeting.
7: Push for Deep Discussion on the Why
In my experience, postmortems don’t automatically lead to a deep debate on root causes and how to genuinely impact change. This is your postmortem analysis.
It takes a lot of nurturing before people get comfortable voicing their real opinions. Folks will keep the discussion at a surface level. Assumptions aren’t questioned, the first answer is typically accepted, and the actions steps will be trivial at best.
To really produce improvements from postmortems, the meeting leader will have to push a bit. That’s why I like to ask lots of follow up questions.
One of my favorites is simple to say “Tell me more” after someone makes a statement. It’s generic so it works in every situation, it shows genuine curiosity which encourages the entire group, and it’s super easy for me to remember. It’s an amazing prompt to get people to dig a bit deeper.
Going into these meetings, I usually have a few strong beliefs as to what happened and why. I have to remind myself that I can’t give folks these answers. First, I might be wrong. Second, people still look to me to have the answers every time. I have to guide people to real insights with questions.
It usually takes me a few months of pushing for real insights before the group starts to do it on their own. Once they get the hang of it, I take a less involved role in the meetings so the group can keep flourishing.
8: Assign Each Action Step to an Individual
If everyone owns something, no one owns it.
The last step I also make sure to complete is to assign every action step to a specific owner.
The items that don’t get assigned always get forgotten about. If this happens a few times, it’s not a big deal. I want to avoid making a habit out of it. As soon as folks realize that most actions won’t get followed up on, they’ll make a few conclusions:
- If no one else has to be accountable so neither do they. Then they won’t complete the tasks that are assigned to them.
- They’ll adopt a fatalistic attitude, believing nothing will change even when issues are identified.
- Active participation in postmortems isn’t making a difference so they’ll disengage.
To give this enough time, I keep a close eye on the clock. When there are 10 minutes left for the meeting, I cut the conversation short and move to action steps.
The first few times that I did this, I always felt like we were cutting a few items short. We were in the middle of an active debate and didn’t have clarity on how to handle a critical item. Not to mention a few other items that we didn’t discuss at all. To get around this, I started turning unresolved items into action steps too.
If you need to keep discussing an item in order to get to a resolution, assign that discussion to someone. They’re now responsible for organizing a separate meeting for just that item. Or you can move the discussion to a document for feedback. If the item is critical, I prefer to keep it front and center with another meeting. If it’s less important, I try to come up with a light action step that can still get a resolution without taking up time from the whole group.
By ending the meeting with 10 minutes to spare, you’ll have enough time to sort through and assign all the actions steps regardless of where things landed. If you try to rush through the action steps with only 3-5 minutes, more items will fall through the cracks in the rush to finish on time.
9: Follow Up to Ensure Actions Steps Are Getting Completed
It’s not enough to assign action steps, you’ll also need to follow up with folks to see if they were completed.
When tasks aren’t completed, it’s nothing nefarious on the part of the team. They’re simply distracted. They have a lot to do already, the postmortem process is new, and they naturally don’t assign a ton of importance to the process. Doing a gentle check-in a few days after the postmortem will quickly set expectations across the team.
I find that this is only important in the beginning. After the habits get ingrained across the team, everyone tends to follow through without any check-ins.
Most importantly, make sure you’re completing any of your own action steps promptly. The rest of the team will take cues from your own behavior.
10: Archive Postmortems in the Same Place
Lastly, I archive all my postmortems in a single location.
Depending on how you store your documents, you could create a Google Drive folder or use a wiki like Confluence. I try to archive my postmortems in the way that the majority of the company is also archiving documents. That increases the odds that people will review any of my postmortems.
Look, most people won’t read the postmortems. They’ve already gotten the bulk of the value from the postmortem by going through the process itself. And most folks have too much on their plates to go poking around random document folders. But there are a few situations where you’ll be thankful that you archived everything:
- Someone brings up an idea that you previously tried. Instead of arguing against them, simply point them to the doc and say that you’d love to give it another try if they can point out how it’ll be different this time.
- I’ll often have a new employee read through a batch of postmortems when onboarding them. They get up to speed a lot faster that way.
- A problem or bug is discovered that invalidates previous projects, you’ll want to know exactly what was shipped and when.
- New data totally reshapes your understanding of your environment, you’ll want everything documented in order to reassess old projects.