Project management post-mortem – 6 ways to make meetings more productive

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Productive post-mortem meetings can help your agency build stronger workflows, retain clients and gain more referrals—here’s our 6 favorite ways to make the most of your meetings.

Post-mortems seem to stall your agency’s progress. Every time you host a post-mortem meeting, you ask yourself if a project review is worth it, or if the billable hours your team could be spending on upcoming deadlines are more valuable than the feedback you’ll get at the meeting. It is tempting to push these evaluations off until it’s too late – or even write them off altogether. These meetings are often awkward and unproductive because everyone leaves knowing what they did wrong, but not what to do next. However, consistent and productive post-mortems create a feedback loop that helps your agency to retain current and future clients. Productive post-mortems help illuminate the little things, like the fact that your clients want to see an earlier draft of the wireframe or require project updates more frequently. These meetings prove to current clients that you listen to constructive criticism and use it to improve your work for them. Here are our tips to help you rid yourself of those post-mortem woes and design the smoothest, most productive post-mortem meeting possible.

BEFORE: Preparation for the Post-Mortem

1. Schedule a meeting at the end of every project

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It is really easy to put off a difficult post-mortem until it’s irrelevant, but the post-mortems you want to have least are the ones your agency needs the most. Your post-mortems shouldn’t happen sometimes – they should happen always. Without a hard-and-fast system for consistent post-mortems in place, you’ll miss the unique perspective of each client as well as the patterns that crop up with multiple clients over time. We recommend having a post-mortem after every project, or quarterly for clients who have your agency on retainer. Your post-mortem needs to become a part of your project management process-and included on every project roadmap. If you’re using Teamwork Projects, we recommend including it on a pre-written template of admin tasks so your employees automatically add it to every project they undertake. But regardless of what tool you use, making sure that a post-mortem is automatically included on your project roadmap will make sure the event doesn’t fall through the cracks.

2. Invite your clients and a moderator

Inviting only members of your team to the post-mortem limits the kind of feedback you can get. You need a fresh, outside perspective to help you dig deep into why things played out the way they did, which means inviting both your clients and an additional moderator. Having clients present for the meeting actually makes it more productive. They give you feedback you couldn’t have predicted otherwise, and it prevents your employees from placing blame on the clients—allowing you to get to the heart of any issues that crop up. It also shows your clients that you’re invested in their success and committed to improving your process. Inviting a moderator helps you stick to the meeting agenda and make sure every minute is spent productively. Your moderator doesn’t have to be a professional consultant – it could be someone from your agency who didn’t work on the project or only worked on it in a limited capacity. Having a moderator means that your team can focus on hashing out the important issues instead of fixating on the logistics of running a meeting.

DURING: Running the Post-Mortem Meeting

3. Encourage honest critical discussion

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The worst kind of post-mortem is vague and unstructured. If your clients and your employees don’t share specific pieces of critical feedback, the whole hour is wasted. Your clients might be hesitant to be the first to say something negative, so they might not speak up. Sometimes people express their general “feelings” instead of what could be improved. If a website turned out really well, it’s easy for the client to say “Yeah, I really liked it. Great job!” With post-mortems, even if you get a positive reaction, you need to dig deeper. Perhaps next time, they might want to be included more in the idea generation process or see an earlier draft of the wireframe. It is your job to create an environment that extracts specific feedback. Here are some strategies for encouraging clients to offer their honest opinion.

  • Check in on the metrics.

    Looking at data is an objective way to see how the project performed. Keeping track of measurements post-launch, like conversion and bounce rates, is a great way of encouraging constructive feedback—especially if someone’s afraid to be the first person to say something negative.

  • Have guided discussion questions.

    Planning guided discussion questions in advance prevents everyone from “copping out” during the meeting. The questions have to be specific: “Did you feel communication went well?” will get you less useful feedback than, “How did you feel about our email update system?”

  • Ask “why” questions.

    When someone offers their input, asking them


    they felt the way they did helps get to the heart of the issue. For example, someone could say “I felt the agency could have communicated better.” If you take the time to ask “Why?” you might hear that they would have liked more update emails instead of stretches of radio silence.

Using these tactics makes sure that your team makes the most of each review by digging into the meat of what is being said—and finding solutions.

4. Keep the feedback constructive (and don’t blame)

At a post-mortem, it’s tempting to “play the blame game” and try to tease out who was responsible for every error. It’s actually a natural reaction – our brains are hardwired to point out mistakes, making it more difficult to acknowledge and internalize praise.

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But blame is toxic and contagious. A study from Stanford Business School shows that once one person starts placing blame, everyone around them is more likely to as well. Moreover, that blame prevents you from getting to the heart of issues. Most of the time, it’s not a specific person who needs to be fixed—it’s a whole system or a set of expectations.

“Instead of WHO made the client unhappy, a successful post-mortem examines WHAT went wrong and WHY.”

Keeping to “what” and “why” statements means that your meeting will focus on learning instead of dissolving into a blame spiral. If you need to call out a specific person, do it after the post-mortem. That keeps the meeting focused on learning instead of shaming.

AFTER: Taking Action on What You’ve Learned

5. Record actionable takeaways immediately

You’ve been to horrible post-mortems where people go on and on about what went wrong but never take initiative to resolve problems. Everyone says, “Sure, we’ll keep that in mind for the future,” but no one takes any action, and everyone leaves feeling annoyed that they had to sit through a useless meeting.

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Having a brief meeting with only your team immediately after the post-mortem to think about your goals moving forward is one key way to turn feedback into action. Simon Heaton, Partner Content Marketing Lead at Shopify, recommends asking these three questions after every post-mortem:

  1. What do we absolutely need to do?

  2. What can we do about it now?

  3. What can we do about it soon (3-6 months)?

Asking these questions will help your team put advice into action and improve your process.

6. Show clients you value their feedback with a follow-up email

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Putting feedback into action isn’t enough. You also need to show clients that you’re taking their comments seriously in order to keep them coming back for more. If they spent an hour in a post-mortem to help you improve your agency, you need to show them that you value their time and input. After your team meets and determines the actionable takeaways, send your clients a follow-up email recapping the post-mortem and let them know that you are adapting your practices as a result. Here’s what a well-crafted follow-up email might look like:

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  • Open with a thank-you for their business

  • Include a specific mention of how you used their feedback

  • Invite them to work with you again in the future

Letting them know how grateful you are for their feedback and the steps you’re taking to implement it will show them that you’re an agency dedicated to doing your best—leading to repeat work and more referrals.

Use Post-Mortems to Fuel Client Retention

Unproductive post-mortems waste your employees’ time—time they could spend billing hours on other projects. But having a system that ensures productive post-mortems, like the one we’ve outlined in this post, earns that money back (and much more) through increased client retention.

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