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The Keys to a Successful Postmortem

  |  January 4, 2001   |  Comments

For most start-ups, success and risk go hand in hand. Sure, some risks won't pay off -- that's just the way it is. But here's a strategy for decreasing the odds of making the same mistake twice.

For most start-ups, success and risk go hand in hand. If you are unable to take risks, it is very difficult to take the quantum leaps necessary to survive, much less thrive. By holding a postmortem after every project, you build learning into your process. This will hopefully decrease the odds that you will make the same mistake twice.

Take notes during the process. Don't use the postmortem as the only occasion to be reflective about the project process. Throughout the project, stop to take notes about what is working and where the team is struggling. These notes will come in handy for the postmortem.

You may also find it useful to do a mid-project check-in with the group. There is no reason to wait for the project to be over before you think about how you can improve the process. If you can fix problems during the process, the project is more likely to be successful.

Send an outline. Make sure your team is prepared for the postmortem meeting. Send out an email prior to the meeting with the key questions that you want to cover. To encourage participation, you might find it helpful to require team members to send you responses to the questions prior to the meeting.

Document the results. Be sure to take detailed minutes during the meeting and include them in a postmortem report. The report should be sent to the members of the team for their approval, then distributed to management and any additional individuals who were involved in the project.

Aggregate learning. Regularly gather a cross-functional team to review the postmortem reports on projects throughout the organization. This is a great opportunity to share learning with other teams and identify systemic problems across the organization that need to be addressed.

Have a clear agenda. Follow a clear map in your discussion to get the most out of the postmortem meeting.

Here are items you might want to include on your postmortem meeting agenda.

Project Planning and Process

Look at how successfully the team developed a project plan, identified risks, and kept on schedule.

  • Were we able to accurately estimate the time required for tasks?

  • Did we coordinate and sequence tasks effectively?

  • Did we come to a clear consensus as to which tasks had the highest priority?

  • Did any team member find himself or herself waiting for another team member to complete a task?

  • What drove the launch date?

  • Were any risks not defined prior to the start of the project?


Examine how well team members communicated with each other and with people outside the core team.

  • Did the team find it difficult to come to consensus?

  • Did the group respect each member's expertise?

  • Were there any issues communicating with groups outside the product team?

  • Were stakeholders kept in the loop regarding changes to the features?

  • Did the group receive regular minutes after meetings?

  • Was the documentation clear and unambiguous?

  • Did the group spend too much time in meetings?

  • Were the goals for the project clear to the team and company?

  • Were team members accessible to each other to help answer questions?


Explore how well roles were defined in the product team.

  • Did the customer play a significant role in the process?

  • Were roles within the team clear?

  • Was it clear who had decision-making power at every level?

  • Was there an executive sponsor for the project who set clear priorities and made available necessary resources within the organization?

  • Did the project manager have someone to perform all the functions necessary for the project to be successful?

Action Items

The postmortem meeting won't prove to have been useful if you are not able to define some core action items for the team. These action items should address the key lessons from the project. For each action item, be sure to clearly define an owner and timeline for completion.

  • How does the process need to be adjusted?

  • Do any of the product documentation templates (for instance, the test plan) need to change?

  • Are there new document templates that need to be drafted?

  • Should any of the roles be changed?

  • Does management need to play a different role?

Holding a postmortem will only be successful if you are prepared, follow a clear agenda, and execute on the most important action items resulting from the meeting.


Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee, Didit cofounder and executive chairman, has been an acknowledged search engine marketing expert since 1995. His years of SEM expertise provide the foundation for Didit's proprietary Maestro search campaign technology. The company's unparalleled results, custom strategies, and client growth have earned it recognition not only among marketers but also as part of the 2007 Inc 500 (No. 137) as well as three-time Deloitte's Fast 500 placement. Kevin's latest book, "Search Engine Advertising" has been widely praised.

Industry leadership includes being a founding board member of SEMPO and its first elected chairman. "The Wall St. Journal," "BusinessWeek," "The New York Times," Bloomberg, CNET, "USA Today," "San Jose Mercury News," and other press quote Kevin regularly. Kevin lectures at leading industry conferences, plus New York, Columbia, Fordham, and Pace universities. Kevin earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1992 and lives in Manhattan with his wife, a New York psychologist and children.

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