Post-mortem, Post-shmortem.

As a project manager you want all your projects to be successful. I know I do. No matter how hard you try, if you’re really experienced, you’ve had your fair share of project trouble. We’ve all been there, when things have not gone exactly smooth, someone brings up the post-mortem. It’s a popular belief that post-mortem will make things better next time, that we will learn our lessons and correct our shortcomings, and we will be victorious over trouble in many projects to come.

The idea sounds good on paper, yet in my 14 years managing projects at various ad agencies and technology consulting firms, I have yet to experience one truly effective post-mortem that in fact delivered on its lavish promises. On the other hand, I have seen a few that were a source of great stress and produced very little, if any, benefit.

Below are a few things that are not quite right about the way most agencies approach a post-mortem, and couple of thoughts on how YOU can solve the REAL problem.

Post-Mortem Takes Time Away From Billable Work, And Is Perceived As A Nuisance By Everyone Forced To Participate.

How much time do you really have to focus on things that cannot be billed to a client? On one hand you have minimum billable time requirement (of 85-95% depending on agency and role), and you know that your contribution to agency’s bottom line rests on this metric. On the other hand you’re asked to do this post-mortem thing, and while overtime is common, you may already have a lot of it just trying to stay on top of the billable work.

It’s Not a Blame Game, But Really, Everyone Wants to CYA.

Rarely is one person solely responsible for a project’s failure. Usually it’s a combination of things, minor shortcuts, seemingly inconsequential delays, little cute scope creeps – that all add up – until one day it becomes painfully obvious that the project needs life support if it is to have a chance for a relatively mild if unhappy ending. Look, if someone is truly incompetent, I hope that’s detected and dealt with way before it comes to a post-mortem. For the most part we’re talking about all good people who collectively screwed up a little. Add to this the party line of “not pointing fingers” and individual’s instinct to CYA, and you get a collection of largely impotent generalizations that have no chance for any therapeutic impact.

When It’s Done, It’s Gone.

When the project is over and the new pressures take toll, the post-mortem gets performed, the box checked, and whatever supposed lessons learned, quickly forgotten. People get stressed over new challenges, make new old mistakes, and not so far away is a new post-mortem. Indeed when post-mortem is a matter of policy it may play a negative role on project performance, where problems are flagged to be dealt with during post-mortem, instead of now, on the spot where the resolution can have the most tangible impact.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with looking back, analyzing mistakes and putting preventive measures in place to be better next time around. The problem is that theory rarely meets practice in this case, at least in my experience.

If that’s so, what can be done about the real problem that post-mortem feebly attempts at solving — the obstacles facing the project every day?

Deal With Things on the Spot

We humans have a tendency to postpone dealing with problems. Maybe we’re afraid of conflict, maybe we’re overly optimistic, maybe we indulge in wishful thinking. It’s like deferring taxes in reverse – we postpone the benefits instead of costs. When there is something blocking the progress or threatening success of the project, deal with it on the spot. Now. Face your fear and take it head on with no excuses.

Don’t Hope For the Best, Consider the Worst Instead

I don’t know about you, but I have overly optimistic natural response mechanism. From how long it’ll take me to do something, to how fast I can get from here to there to… you name it. As a project manager you need to know this not only about yourself, but everyone else too. You don’t have a luxury of hoping for best-case outcome. One of the stoics’ techniques is to consider the worst case in great detail, imagining as if it already happened. If you have not heard this before, talk to senior devs and they will confirm that on complex projects everything that CAN go wrong, will; and anything that can’t go wrong, will go wrong too. Be like a stoic, plan for the worst case. If it happens you’ll be prepared. If it doesn’t you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Don’t Borrow Time from the Future

Upstream on the project things tend to go late because it seems that there is lots of time to catch up later. After all you buffered the timeline for this reason, didn’t you? No, you buffered the timeline to prepare for the unexpected and unforeseen. Do not be nice and let things slide a day or two here and there. You need to apply the same rigor at the beginning of the project as at the very end. If you don’t, guess what, next thing you know you are having an unpleasant post-mortem.

Conclusion

Some things are legitimate lessons that the team should learn and implement in subsequent projects. But do not defer the day-to-day problem solving to the point when it’s too late. Deal with things on the spot, be like a stoic, don’t borrow time from the future, and you will be victorious over project trouble. Then have your post-mortem too. It’ll be less painful and more effective.

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