Post-Mortems: Are you sure you want to engage? Can you afford not to?

By Tom Shenk

Why are they so important? What is the bottom-line? The answer – if a post-mortem is conducted well it allows for:

a. An organization to capture important learning from goal directed activity that supports an “achievement aroused organization climate.” For an organization to operate at a high standard of performance it must have active, candid, and open feedback systems. A process of post-mortems is part of that system.

b. People (learn) to take more responsibility for outcomes.

What else are they?

A conversation – Post-mortems most often begin with people in some distress (tense). At some point when people experience that they are not going to be blamed the talking (investigating) really begins. Let the conversation flow. During the early stage it is not important to be precise, but more important for people to hear their voice and begin the process of feeling safe.

Goal directed – Post-mortems begin with … “what was our goal, what were our goals?” These goals must be kept present at all times during a post-mortem. If the goal(s) were poorly formed it will be reflected early on in a post-mortem. Often we go through this stage too quickly. Questions for this stage are … “What were our goals, what did we want, what did we expect?”

About the past – Post-mortems are a discussion that focuses on what happened and how it relates to what we wanted to have happen. The tendency is to jump to what we would do next time. If members jump too quickly to solutions (the future), we cannot become grounded in the part we played in what happened (good or bad). Avoid problem solving, or talking about what we can do next time. This comes after the post-mortem.

An in depth “dialoging” process – The principals of dialogue (defined as flow of meaning) must prevail. Dialogue essentially means “talk-til-the-talking starts.” The goal is to find a new level of understanding that will result in coordinated effective action. It is about collective not individual responsibility. Absent from the post-mortem process are one-up, one-down statements of judgment, and “you should have” statements. The dialogue focuses on what went well as well as what did not go do well. There is obvious benefit to know our strengths. It is sometimes too easy to just focus on what went wrong or weaknesses, especially when things went awry.

About taking responsibility – While the goal is clearly about collective responsibility a post-mortem is not a post-mortem until people (naturally) gravitate to taking responsibility. The real traction for an organization is when you hear some version of … “You know I could have …” or “I have to own that one.” The post-mortem process is not fully effective until “I” statements and statements of personal accountability are heard. One of the (hidden) benefits of an effective post-mortem is that members grow in their feeling of responsibility for organization outcomes. An important question at the end of a post-mortem and a question that is never asked in today’s organization life is … “What have you learned personally about you?” When people feel safe, the answers to this question can be profound and need no dialogue.

Capturing what we learned – Per se the post-mortem process is a backward or historical look at what happened. Of course the purpose is to learn and apply the learning to “go forward” projects. In reality people want to jump to the future. It is recommended that the group capture lessons learned as they come up during the post-mortem and then keep the discussion on the past. Once the post-mortem is complete then the (important) go-forward discussion takes hold.

Critical to creating an achievement aroused organization climate – The three most important ingredients to creating and maintaining an achievement aroused organization climate are: a. clarity, b. well formed goals, and c. effective feedback and feedback systems.

Answers to key questions

* What were our goals? What did we want to have happen? What did we expect?
* What outcomes (results) did we get that were intended?
* What were the unintended outcomes?
* How was our planning process? How well did we plan? Did we have the right people involved in the planning process?
* How well did we execute? What was good about our execution, where did it break down?
* What did we learn about this group, this team? What did we learn about our process(es) and ourselves that can help us in the future?
* What did I learn about myself?

Other notes:

* There are pitfalls.

  • Some people cannot understand and will never understand why we are “dredging up old toxic news.” Some people are “never-look-back” sorts. This is a value they hold.
  • Some people will not be able to stay away from judgment and take personal responsibility.
  • Some people are not wired to be part of a team. The post-mortem process is a team building process once it takes hold in an organization. Some people just don’t do well in a team environment.
  • It takes time and some people can’t see the benefit of taking so much time.
  • People choose to have their feelings hurt and choose to stay there.
  • Unless people feel safe (a level playing field and the absence of retribution), the post-mortem process never takes hold.

* It is a pay-me-now or pay-me-later proposition. If we don’t learn our lesson now we will have to learn it later.

Last note:

There is enough to go around. When considering whether you want to invest in a post-mortem process ask yourself if your organization has the emotional intelligence to handle it. You see if we don’t learn how to do them, we leave learning up to chance. If we don’t do them, we are at risk of repeating our mistakes, and if we don’t do them it is likely that we are involved with an organization that defaults to blame and not personal responsibility/accountability. There is enough accountability to go around; the emotionally intelligent organization pushes for specific and individual accountability, allows people to learn from their mistakes and sees blame and blaming as … well you finish the sentence. Good luck.

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