Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Holding Pre- and Post-Mortem Meetings


I am a big advocate of having a robust plan. But in my previous blog stating so, I didn’t provide any methods to craft a robust plan. There are many elements that go into it, but here are two things you can do: one to come up with an initial robust plan, and another to improve on it, so your next plan will be more robust.

1. Pre-Mortem Meetings

Our tendency is to be relieved once we come up with an idea of what to do, and we get the managers to sign off on it. We might even have the energy to draft a general budget sheet, decide on a deadline, and jot down some milestones. But there’s a step we already missed: a pre-mortem meeting.

A pre-mortem meeting is where the key staff who will be expected to participate in the project to look into the future of the project. Because we tend to want to optimistic about the project (that’s why the idea got as far as it did in the first place), people are reluctant to see what might fail or what challenges they might encounter. In having generated many ideas for the project, it might be easy to lose sight of the original goal you wanted to accomplish and why. Here is a possible agenda for a pre-mortem meeting:

  • Define the project for the group
    1. What is the planned outcome
    2. What is the expected impact
    3. Why are we doing it (and doing it now?)
  • Get on the time machine to the future/Look through a crystal ball
    1. Go through from t = 0, when the project starts, to when the project is expected to end to jot down some of the key milestones and events
    2. Challenge the group to write down as many things that can go wrong for each of these steps
    3. Because it is tough to get people to open up about what might fail, another way to approach this step is to assume/pretend that the project failed, and then brainstorm the reasons for its failure
    4. Pick the most problematic areas for each step and devise a solution that could be activated should the anticipated difficulties actually occur
  •  Re-describe the project as necessary (change or reduce the scope, adjust the timeline, expected results) if the problem areas identified don’t have a clear or easy solutions
  • Issue a revised project plan based on the pre-mortem meeting

2. Post-Mortem Meetings

A post-mortem meeting is held after a project is completed to review of how it went. Despite the fact that more people know the concept of a post-mortem meeting, it is not necessarily built into the company routine, or performed effectively. Here are some key points to remember when running a post-mortem meeting.

  • Schedule one before the project gets started, so it is part of everyone’s expectations and part of the project completion process
  • It must be scheduled immediately after (with the expectation that people jot down notes along the way for what they would do differently the next time, by having a shared electronic document/spreadsheet available from the start of the project)
  • Both positive (what you would do again) and negative (what you would not do or change) points should be noted
  • For each of the points, note “why” it worked or didn’t work
  • Suggest solutions for the future for negative points, and make sure that the positive points can be replicated (and if there is not sufficient documentation to do so by some other staff, how it can be accomplished again should be jot down)
  • Review these notes BEFORE starting the plan for the next project that is similar in profile, so improvements can be woven into the plan from the get-go.

These are simple concepts but not enough people practice it. We tend to want things to be linear, monotonic and moving forward in time. The recursive process of this planning can feel like we are wasting time or not making progress. But as the folding the molten metal again and again that forges the samurai sword stronger, it is the process of stepping back and revisiting that makes a plan more robust (as with many things, like writing).

Photo: Flowers in Stavanger, Norway


3 comments on “On Holding Pre- and Post-Mortem Meetings

  1. bifyu
    July 13, 2015

    +1, but the -mortem nomenclature niggles at me a bit. Given its meaning of death, I would assume it would tend to get associated with failure, which I presume is not really the intent. And although one could argue that plans have life cycles, the death aspect also doesn’t really seem to fit the intent here where the goal is anticipate (pre-) and revise /improve (post-) for future re-use or adaptation. It doesn’t really have the nice symmetry that pre/post-mortem does, but I’ve seen “flight plan” used in more than one organization as the pre- step, and at my current gig, “plus/delta” for the post-.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lavayoda
      July 14, 2015

      Agreed. Thanks for reminding me about the “flight plans”. That came out of my frustration working tech support on a holiday after a long server maintenance by one of the system admin and everything was messed up. I could not get through to the staff how important it was to chart out the plan of attack ahead of time, identify a point of no return, how one would back out of an upgrade, when to communicate to the rest of the staff. When there was a blank response, I said, “you know, like pilots file a flight plan.” “oh! I get it.” There indeed should be a better name. hopefully one that not only captures the fact it’s done AHEAD of time, but that we go against our own confirmation biases and assume failure and take the time to devise a contingency plan. With so many words in the English language, there are more things we need to name!


  2. mhodgesatuh
    July 17, 2015

    +1 (emphatically). It might be useful to consider the pre-mortum in the context of the formulation of the “project charter document.” The charter can be as light-weight as possible for the project. Many (or al)l of its elements are described in this example:
    The purpose of the charter is to ensure that the project is well articulated to the executive sponsors, key stakeholders, and participants. It helps ensure that everyone involved is well grounded from the start.


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This entry was posted on July 9, 2015 by in Management and tagged , , , , .
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