5 tips for holding effective post-mortems

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
May 19, 2022
A graphic illustrating a post-mortem retrospective exercise
5 tips for holding effective post-mortems
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
May 19, 2022

Post-mortems are a necessary requirement for any project because they give you more insight into what went right, what went wrong, and what can be improved. Post-mortem meetings are necessary to improve efficiency, enhance team communication, pinpoint process improvements, and share honest feedback. Although the post-mortem is a standard operating procedure in Agile and Scrum frameworks (where it's known as a retrospective — much less depressing), it's used collaboratively in any project life cycle.

How to run an effective post-mortem meeting

A post-mortem meeting is more than just rehashing a project. You have to identify key blockers, celebrate wins, and strategize what to do going forward to improve. You also need to keep the post-mortem meeting on track while maintaining a positive environment for your stakeholders since post-mortems will often be discussing uncomfortable challenges the project may have faced.

Related: Why Do We Leave Collaboration to Chance?

So how do you achieve all of these goals — keep it short, keep it fun, and keep it focused while maintaining a sense of collaboration and team-based cooperation? Here are a few basic guidelines that should help.

1. Use a moderator or facilitator

A moderator runs the post-mortem, assigns the time limits, and makes sure the team maintains focus during the meeting. Without a moderator, the meeting has no motive — it's just a bunch of people in a room talking for no reason. If your moderator or facilitator is not actively involved and prepared for all elements of the meeting, you can’t expect the rest of the participants to be engaged.

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Leaders are made, they are not born.” The same applies to moderators and facilitators. You have to learn the soft skills needed to effectively lead a meeting. One great way to start is to familiarize yourself with resources like the Ultimate Meeting Facilitation Toolkit, which can guide you through the process by showing you how to effectively run a meeting using MURAL templates.

2. Keep it positive

Post-mortems can turn into a blame game, especially if tough questions about the project need answers. Keep your post-mortem positive by starting with icebreakers and energizers in order to engage employees and keep their attention. You want engaged employees in your meeting because they’re 21% more productive, and have lower turnover and absenteeism rates.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Meetings More Collaborative

Whether your meeting culture is remote, hybrid, or fully in-person, having a central, shared digital workspace can unlock that engagement to a much greater degree than a traditional roundtable or slide deck-focused approach. These templates include a variety of ice breakers, warm-ups, and meeting energizers your team can use to get to know each other and start the meeting on a positive note.

3. Use baselines to measure successes and challenges

A baseline in project management is a clearly defined starting point or fixed reference point against which you estimate and match your project’s progress. This enables you to evaluate the performance of your project over time. 

The three most common baselines for a project are: schedule, cost, and scope. Use these three guideposts if you're looking for where to start the post-mortem discussion.

The easiest way to evaluate the baselines after a project is to pose each as a question. Did we meet the schedule? Did we come under or go over budget? Did we achieve our objectives for the project (scope)? If you started your project with the product launch template, it can be customized to include the baselines of the schedule, cost, and scope for reference later in the post-mortem.

4. Give team members the time to speak — figuratively and literally

Setting time limits for speakers is essential in order to keep the post-mortem meeting moving and not waste everyone’s time, which is the most infuriating aspect of a bad meeting. According to Korn Ferry, 67% of respondents in their “Working or Wasting Time” survey said that time wasted in meetings distracts them from doing their work. And according to a “Productivity at the Office” survey by Jabra, more than half (51%) say that discussions without direction ruin productivity.

Related: How to Hold Effective Meetings: 6 Expert Tips

Time-boxing helps meeting facilitators stay focused and on schedule. If you realize you need more time for an activity, you can add extra time on the fly in increments of one or five minutes, or set up some private time outside of the post-mortem to gather honest feedback. Participants will be notified when you start the timer, if you add time or pause the clock, and when the time is up, so everyone stays in sync.

5. Follow the three-question rule to keep discussions focused

In order to keep the post-mortem meeting on topic and sharply focused (and cut down on wasted time), follow a simple three-question rule.

  • What went right with this project?
  • What went wrong?
  • What can we improve in the process for next time?

These three talking points will help you identify the parts of the project that you should strive to always include during a project, the roadblocks your team faced throughout the project that need to be solved, and the suggestions they have for streamlining the next project.

The retrospective template from MURAL is a great resource to help you efficiently plan a post-mortem meeting. It lets you collaboratively evaluate the post-mortem process, reflect on what happened in the most recent work iteration, and identify actions for improvement going forward.

A checklist for your next post-mortem

Checklist illustration and text bubble icons

If you find a post-mortem meeting daunting, use this checklist to make sure you're prepared. Preparation is key in order to keep the rest of the team responsive, engaged, and on target. They will appreciate the organization and engage themselves in the conversation.

  • Send out a post-mortem questionnaire or survey
  • Set a meeting agenda
  • Select a meeting moderator
  • Assign a designated note-taker for taking meeting notes
  • Set speaking time limits
  • Recap the project
  • Review the outcomes and results
  • Identify what went well and what didn’t
  • Prioritize action items
  • Send notes or minutes to everyone involved
  • Celebrate the wins
  • Wrap up and end on a positive note

The bottom line

Holding a project post-mortem meeting will help you become a better meeting facilitator

Delivering a solid, focused post-mortem will shape your other meeting skills and can help streamline your next project. Knowing how to weave your way through a tough discussion about challenges while keeping your teammates engaged and positive will transfer to your facilitation of future meetings and post-mortems. What you learn in a post-mortem meeting will shape your leadership skills in the future.

Even more exciting is that right now, you can take all of the templates mentioned here by signing up with a Free Forever plan. You can add a shared digital canvas from hundreds of ready-to-use templates to your next meeting for an easy way to increase engagement and get more problems solved — together.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.

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