When a project is over, how can a team do a successful post-mortem without defensive finger-pointing?

Doing a post-launch post-mortem is one of my favorite things to do as a designer because it’s quickest and cheapest way to learn/grow. I’ve noticed a few post-mortem sessions become accusatory or just downright awkward because of the way in which they’re conducted. They definitely don’t have to be. A few things to keep in mind when discussing a project during a post-mortem: be direct & concise when providing feedback, focus on learnings rather than regrets, talk about the project & its attributes as opposed to individuals, i.e., don’t make it personal.

Be direct & concise when providing feedback

Be sure to encourage the team to provide feedback that’s clear, direct, and hopefully even actionable. A good way to get valuable feedback is to ask for 2–3 things that went really well and 2–3 things that can be improved on if the team were to work on the same project all over again. Make sure someone in the room (preferably the project owner) is taking notes. Also, try to draw themes from all the feedback that you’re hearing. This will be helpful when you’re summarizing relevant points at the end.

Focus on learnings instead of regrets

Hindsight is 20/20. When looking back at a project, it’s easy to get negative and defensive, which leads to finger-pointing. Make it clear in the beginning of the meeting that the post-mortem isn’t about bringing up regrets or playing the blame game, it’s about learning and growing together as a team. It’s not worth the team’s time discussing what the project could have been if only… It is, however, worth it to talk about how a certain situation can be handled differently in the future to ship a more successful project.

Talk about the project & its attributes as opposed to individuals

One of the most important things to do in the beginning of the meeting is to clearly state that this post-mortem isn’t about accusing each other, it’s about learning and growing as a team. In other words, let’s not get personal. It’s a good idea to discuss goals related to the project as opposed to who did what and why. Shift the conversation from something like ‘who was responsible for the final decision and why wasn’t the email sent in time?’ to ‘how can we get ahead of this problem in the future?’ Make the discussion about the process instead of about individuals.

Designer of many things. Currently, Head of Design at Unmind. Previously, Head of Design @HelloSign. Design @zendesk. Creator of @neemsf & @hdysta.

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