Pre-mortems and Post-mortems: The 2 Most Important Parts of Any Project

Fix failure before it happens with a project pre-mortem and post-mortem

Project failure is painful. There’s nothing worse than that sinking feeling when a project deadline comes and goes, and you haven’t been able to deliver on your promises. But the stress and disappointment don’t have to be for nothing. You can learn from past mistakes and avoid future ones with a project pre-mortem and post-mortem.

As the name implies, a post-mortem analysis takes a scientific approach to project death, and diagnoses what the causes were. A pre-mortem, on the other hand, is a chance to consider possible failures before the project begins. Each study considers when, in the project lifecycle, the problem occurs, why it happens, who’s responsible, and what can be done to fix it.

By asking the same questions about failure at the start and end of a project, you will merge expectations to ensure follow-through on plans. Here, we’ll offer suggestions for the questions to ask your team in a pre-mortem and post-mortem analysis.

The four categories of pre- and post-mortems

In “7 Signs Your Project is Bound to Fail,” we divided project failures into three categories that can be addressed by the project manager. Pre-mortems and post-mortems, however, are collaborative processes. Everyone on the team can diagnose an issue and offer a solution or alternative.

That’s why we’ve decided to break down pre-mortems and post-mortems into four categories that involve the entire project team. We’ve compiled them into a handy template that you can use to kickstart the process and record your findings.

  • Planning questions – issues or problems that arise in the early stages of project development
  • Execution questions – problems that impact work and workflow, including those around pace, people, and quality
  • Results questions – problems with performance and performance metrics
  • Communication questions – issues that arise due to breakdown in internal and external communications

We’ve created a single pre-mortem and post-mortem template for a reason: each report should echo the other. While a post-mortem addresses specific problems that sprang up over the duration of a project, a pre-mortem role-plays possible scenarios. In a pre-mortem, you apply prior knowledge from past projects; at the end of a project, you collect the knowledge of recent mistakes to avoid in future projects. To turn observations into action and scale team learning quickly, it makes sense to frame these reports around the same core questions in each category.

Planning Questions

Planning failures can have major repercussions for the rest of your project – from crushing deadline crunch, to overspending, to client churn. At the end of a project, it’s easy to see planning failure and simply vow to do better next time. At the beginning, due to planning fallacy and wide-eyed optimism, it may be difficult to see possible weaknesses in your plans. That’s why you need to gather all the necessary data and come up with an action plan.

We’ve come up with a series of questions about failure to accurately map the scope, team, and timeline of your project. Considering these building blocks from the perspective of failure will help everyone understand why a predetermined structure and schedule – with room for setbacks along the way – will help your team be more productive.

Here are the questions we’ve come up with to address planning issues in your pre-mortem and post-mortem:

  • Project plan: What’s missing from the project plan? What areas are vague?
  • Resources: Have we measured and allocated team members, budget, and tools accurately?
  • Timing: Are deadlines realistic and tied to specific goals? Is there room for unexpected delays?
  • Tasks: Are all necessary tasks planned, with dependencies and deliverables clearly articulated?
  • Documentation: Is our documentation system adequate?

When you answer these questions, stick to facts and data.

It’s not useful to say “Our project plan sucked.” Use the template to record the failure and solution as subtasks. An example might look like this:

In the template, each question is a task you can check off with subtasks to record the issues. There’s also a subtask to include your action plan, which is the most important part of your pre-mortem or post-mortem analysis.

Execution Questions

Almost every project manager encounters last-minute changes and unexpected road bumps. As soon as you start straying from the project’s critical path, however, you need to protect your most important goals. Execution problems creep up quickly when a project is already underway and can catch you off-guard. To keep productivity on track, you need to have strategies in place to react to these issues.

Don’t come up with solutions on the fly. Instead, anticipate problems with workflow, people operations, daily workloads, and project management in your pre- and post-mortem. You can address execution problems by asking your team the following questions:

  • Workflow: Where are the weaknesses in our workflow design?
  • People: How can we make team structure and hierarchy clear and consistent?
  • Tasks: What makes tasks difficult to execute on a day-to-day basis?
  • Delays: How can we better handle unexpected delays?
  • Management: How does management impede workflow?

An example of how this might look in a real project post-mortem:

Answering these questions before a project begins will help you keep a cool head under performance pressure from executives, clients, and other stakeholders.

Results Questions

Ultimately, a project boils down to the final deliverable: did you or did you not deliver a satisfactory product to stakeholders? Getting the right results depends on how you plan and execute tasks, of course, but also how you measure team performance. Performance metrics affect team morale and determine your success with clients or customers.

Of course, different teams work better with different performance expectations and constraints. To find out what works for your team, you’ll probably experience a lot of trial and error before settling into a pattern of consistent results. You can track these experiments with metrics in your pre-mortem and post-mortem.

We’ve come up with these assessments to improve your results:

  • Primary Goal: Why will (did) we miss our primary goal?
  • Secondary Goals: Why will (did) we miss our secondary goals?
  • Quality: How (will or did) tasks fail to meet delivery standards for quality?
  • External performance: Why is this particular client or customer unhappy? What are some problems with our external performance metrics?
  • Internal performance: What are some problems with the way we measure success internally?

In the post-mortem, a team might answer the first question like this:

Poor performance hurts your team and hurts your business. By taking a critical look at performance indicators, you can spot-treat the systems that set your team up for failure.

Communication Questions

X never told me to do that,” “I didn’t see that message you tagged me in,” “Why didn’t you let me know y was going to be late?” Minor communications failures can spell major disaster for a time-sensitive project. Whenever you work with a group of individual contributors, questions about team communication always come up, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

At the outset of any project, it’s important to set clear guidelines for team communication or else you’ll face inefficiency, lost data, and general confusion. At a project’s close, you should assess how well your communication system worked, and where it failed before replicating it for the next project.

We think these questions cover typical communications issues you might encounter over the course of a project:

  • Channels: What are the drawbacks to our main methods of communicating?
  • Team: How (will or did) team members struggle with communications?
  • Managers: How (will or did) managers struggle to communicate?
  • Meetings: What’s wrong with the way we conduct meetings?
  • External: How do we fail in our communication with stakeholders?

A post-mortem assessment of communication might look like this:
Answering these questions will require a deep knowledge of your team’s personalities and work styles. By taking an empathetic stance towards employee frustrations with communication, you can create a more productive environment for all.

The Template

Project pre-mortems and post-mortems are documents meant to kick-start conversation in your team. Use the pre-mortem template to record issues but also to prompt an open discussion about why problems occur and how you can fix them collectively. When you open the floor and allow everyone to contribute to an action plan, you’ll start to see project failure in a new light.

Post-mortem Analysis Template in Redbooth

Download the template at: