Essential Project Reports: Creating an Effective Project Post-Mortem

When was the last time you conducted You do conduct post-mortem for your projects (both personal and professional), don’t you?

What is a post-mortem, you ask? Great question A post-mortem is simply, “an analysis or discussion of an event held soon after it has occurred” (If post-mortem sounds to high-brow for you – or reminds you a little too much of death – feel free to substitute the phrase “project recap”)

I’ve long since conducted post-mortems for professional projects, but have only recently started the practice for personal projects.

We always think we’ll remember…everything…but the details fade so fast. And really, with as much technology as we have available to capture information, why rely on our brains? Free up that brain space for productive thinking, not remembering details of past events!

We’re moving next month, and as we’re gearing up for that, I went back and reviewed my recap notes from our last move (only 10 months ago!). What do you know…there were a number of details I had forgotten, like:

  • How long it took to load the truck
  • How many people we had helping (and how long each of them was there)
  • Where we had downtime in the process
  • …and more

Is this the part where I dare admit that I’d actually forgotten I’d done a post-mortem of our last move and found it by accident?

I knew I’d created a moving checklist, and was searching for that along with any other notes – and what do you know – I’d written down all sorts of helpful details! (See “don’t rely on your brain” and “the importance of having systems in place.”)

Because I had done a post-mortem of the move, I can now use that as a base to plan our upcoming move and save a whole lot of steps in the process. Yay!

How to Write an Effective Post-Mortem

1. Include all the essential elements:

  • What worked
  • What didn’t
  • What to do differently next time
  • A (very brief) recap of the project flow
  • Links to relevant project documents (You’d be amazed at how easy this one is to skip, and how much time it saves to have all project information in the same place!)

2. Write down everything, even things that seem so obvious at the time.

Don’t rely on your brain – every single project recap I do, there’s at least one piece of information where I say “Oh, this is ridiculous, I won’t possibly forget this,” (Yes, I talk to myself a lot.) Inevitably, at least one of these obvious pieces of information is forgotten by the time the next project rolls around.

3. Don’t overcomplicate it.

I know, this seems to be opposite advice to the last point, but really, don’t overcomplicate it. A post-mortem doesn’t have to be formal, and it doesn’t have to be lengthy to be effective. The post-mortem can be as simple or as detailed as needed for any particular project.

4. If needed, do a retroactive post-mortem

It happens to the best of us that we have full intentions of doing a post-mortem right after the end of a project, and somehow it’s suddenly well past the event. Don’t despair! You can retroactively do a post-mortem. It won’t be quite as good as the real deal, but it’ll certainly jump start your planning process. If you haven’t done an official post-mortem, and you’re planning a project similar to one you’ve done previously, don’t despair.

  • Review old documents. For our last move, I have a moving folder that has the receipts from the rental truck, utility changes and papers from our property management company.
  • Review old emails (and text messages). If you vaguely remember when the project was, you can often recreate what went well and what didn’t by reviewing emails, text messages and social media posts. The only way my children will have baby books is if I recreate information based on Facebook posts and text messages. I haven’t yet decided if that’s a #momfail or #efficient.
  • Do a collective brain dump. Chances are you didn’t work on a project alone. A collective brain dump is a great way to have the whole project team recap what they remember and fill in gaps based

Bonus Tip: As you’re planning any project, get out there and schedule your post-mortem as soon as possible after the project is scheduled to end!

When should you use a post-mortem? Here are a few examples personal and professional projects ideal for a post-mortem:

  • A move
  • A vacation
  • A semester or year in school (as a teacher or student!)
  • Any major purchase
  • A new product release
  • A seasonal creation process
  • A website launch
  • Onboarding a new vendor or employee

Get the template: I’ve created a Post-Mortem template in Evernote. If you’re on my ever-fantastic email list, you’ve already got it (along with the rest of the Evernote templates!). If you’re not, what are you waiting for?

Do you conduct project post-mortems or other project recaps? When have you found them most effective? 

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