Mar 092011

The Art of the Post-Mortem

The Art of the Post-Mortem

It has a bunch of names — the After-Action Review, the Critical Incident Review, the plain old Post-Mortem — but whatever you call it, it’s an absolute management best practice to follow when something has gone wrong. We just came out of one relating to last fall’s well document phishing attack, and boy was it productive and cathartic.

In this case, our general takeaway was that our response went reasonably well, but we could have been more prepared or done more up front to prevent it from happening in the first place.  We derived some fantastic learnings from the Post-Mortem, and true to our culture, it was full of finger-pointing at oneself, not at others, so it was not a contentious meeting.  Here are my best practices for Post-Mortems, for what it’s worth:

  • Timing:  the Post-Mortem should be held after the fire has stopped burning, by several weeks, so that members of the group have time to gather perspective on what happened…but not so far out that they forget what happened and why.  Set the stage for a Post-Mortem while in crisis (note publicly that you’ll do one) and encourage team members to record thoughts along the way for maximum impact
  • Length:  the Post-Mortem session has to be at least 90 minutes, maybe as much as 3 hours, to get everything out on the table
  • Agenda format:  ours includes the following sections…Common understanding of what happened and why…My role…What worked well…What could have been done better…What are my most important learnings
  • Participants:  err on the wide of including too many people.  Invite people who would learn from observing, even if they weren’t on the crisis response team
  • Use an outside facilitator:  a MUST.  Thanks to Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting, as always, for helping us facilitate this one and drive the agenda
  • Your role as leader:  set the tone by opening and closing the meeting and thanking the leaders of the response team.  Ask questions as needed, but be careful not to dominate the conversation
  • Publish notes:  we will publish our notes from this Post-Mortem not just to the team, but to the entire organization, with some kind of digestible executive summary and next actions

When done well, these kinds of meetings not only surface good learnings, they also help an organization maintain momentum on a project that is no longer in crisis mode, and therefore at risk of fading into the twilight before all its work is done.  Hopefully that happened for us today.

The origins of the Post-Mortem are with the military, who routinely use this kind of process to debrief people on the front lines.  But its management application is essential to any high performing, learning organization.

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