This post is part of the Workplace Anthropology series.

In business, one of the most dreadful things employees have to endure is the post-mortem. It's an exercise meant to encourage team members to share and receive feedback on the processes that guided their project. It's also ideally meant to point out to management where there may be operational weaknesses that need to be addressed. But often it doesn't work. As a meeting, it devolves into finger-pointing and blame when there's a failure that needs to be addressed, and superficial congratulations when there's a success to be celebrated. While companies like Pixar may claim some success with this exercise because they constantly evolve it to meet the people and culture at hand, for most people it's a tortuous waste of time. Organizations need a mechanism to evaluate potential options for change. Is there anything salvageable from the post-mortem? 

A lot of effort has gone into detailing the processes for an optimal post-mortem. These outlines all tend to look the same. A typical workflow might entail a project and team survey followed by a team debrief that leads to actionable next steps for "next time." But the idea of the post-mortem is challenged by our cultural tendencies: It's not that we don't want to be better, but rather we don't think we need to be better--as a group, that is. As much as we may tout collaborative work and team relationships, we're primed for individual success. Failure when a group is involved can usually be appointed to the shortcomings of others. We live in a time where acknowledgement is a form of social currency. This drives participation in group settings because we want to be acknowledged by our peers. But where group performance matters, as in a post-mortem, it's the individual that we focus on: we are quick to point to the leadership of Sally or the support from Henry and single out individuals who have participated.

There are three kinds of bias that can color our perspective:

  • Fundamental attribution error: People tend to focus on own insights and skills with regard to their own successes but think that the success of others is due to luck. This bias overlooks environmental circumstances or the ways in which collaborative efforts could have enhanced the experience. It also pins failure on others since the emphasis here is on talent and strategy.
  • Overconfidence bias: Success increases self-assurance which means that we tend to repeat what we know works and are resistant to changes and/or ideas that are not our own. 
  • Acceptance bias: We tend to accept good things without critical analysis. This prevents us from applying learnings from what may work in other situations. 

The focus on individual in the workplace is enhanced by the organization's failure to act on changes that are recommended through post-mortems. Managers will de-escalate issues relating to their personnel for fear that it reflects poorly on them as a manager or fail to follow-up on next steps to avoid potential confrontation. The result is that employees then view the post-mortem as an ineffective vehicle of change and come to regard colleagues with suspicion based on their feedback which damages their ability to work collaboratively.

Furthermore, as departments jockey for power and position within companies, it can be difficult to get verticals to see past the class structures that arise in accordance with the organization's goals. One department may view itself as more important to the structure of projects within team settings while another may feel that they always get the short end of the stick when it comes to being fairly allocated resources to success. This kind of divide is common, for example, in agencies that offer full suite concepting to execution from strategy to creative to development. The former maintains that they need significant time for research as this lays the foundation for UX and design, and the latter is asked to make up time that is lost at the onset of the project, which results in the need for additional labor or an accepted reduction in quality assurance. 

So is there any value in the post-mortem exercise? Maybe not. Because less focus is placed on the group in these settings, it's easy for many participants to shrug off findings or simply tune out. Individuals walk away with either no share in the awarded kudos or a direct burden of blame instead of an understanding of the factors that may have contributed to either condition. Combined with the low response rate of organizations to either implement successful measures more broadly or address systematic or personnel issues, the post-mortem is not a corrective exercise.

It may be more useful to invite the team to critically evaluate the project before it begins and then assess these flags throughout the project. This exercise needs to go a step more than identifying risks to the project that get documented as assumptions in a statement of work, but should talk about why the project might fail within the organization--and open the door to all possibilities. For example, when pitching an idea to a new client, the CEO asked to be in the room. The CEO, who is creatively minded, interjected when he saw the client was confused and suggested a completely new idea on the spot which derailed and undermined the team, and did not give them a chance to sell in the idea which they had substantial research to support. The client wanted to pursue the CEO's idea and team was left to try and execute the CEO's idea, and always seemed to fall short. In subsequent planning sessions, this event was always the elephant in the room. The organization needed to acknowledge this event in order to move forward--and eliminate this risk.

In another instance, a team member was assigned an account management role who was not an account manager. This individual's priorities were oriented toward account growth and resulted in time and financial commitments that the team was bound to without critical evaluation. The team consistently failed to meet these commitments, but as there was no relationship management, the team came under fire for these shortcomings and was continually asked to meet commitments that were not feasible in order to "make good" with the client. Even when the misalignment in roles was recognized, it was not addressed, and the project saw high turnover in staff as team members quit and additional resources needed to be onboarded. Once again, getting organizational acknowledgement and intervention would have been key to resolving this issue, but team members needed to be comfortable flagging this as a point of failure.

The point of this exercise is to get people to think beyond the measures of budget and timeline as markers of success. Yes, projects should finish on time and on budget, but if they don't, understanding why the budget was cut without a reduction in scope or where there was potential for exceeding scope should be flagged and understood by everyone involved. And when they do, everyone should understand the circumstances that contributed to that event too. (Did a competitor go out of business? Was there an injection of budget that permitted extra resources? Did the client stick to the deadlines assigned?) This shifts the focus away from individuals or subgroups and asks that everyone involved in the project share in the investment. It encourages people to think critically and continue to think critically throughout the process. 

The roles of the participants and general flow of the post-mortem remains unchanged in this scenario. Yes, you need a facilitator, and you need a mechanism to gather feedback, and demonstrable channels for change. But ultimately what these tools look like should adapt to the situation at hand. Unfortunately, all of this falls short if the organization shows itself unwilling to change. People will provide feedback if it isn't burdensome to do so and if that feedback is acknowledged in a meaningful way. For a project and process review system to be successful, the organization needs to be committed to improvement in more than words.

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Collier, B., DeMarco, T., & Fearey, P. (1996). A defined process for project post mortem review. IEEE software13(4), 65-72.

Durkheim, Emile 1965. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Joseph Swain. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile 1969. Individualism and the Intellectuals. Translated by S. Lukes. Political Studies XVII: 14-30.  

Ferri F, Stoianov IP, Gianelli C, D'Amico L, Borghi AM, et al. (2010) When Action Meets Emotions: How Facial Displays of Emotion Influence Goal-Related Behavior. PLoS ONE 5(10): e13126. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013126

Gino, Francesca and Gary Pisano (2011) Why Leaders Don't Learn from Success. Harvard Business Review. Online Document: Retrieved 11/01/2016.

Marske, C. (1987). Durkheim's "Cult of the Individual" and the Moral Reconstitution of Society. Sociological Theory, 5(1), 1-14. doi:1. Retrieved from doi:1


More in this series:

Why are we sleeping with our phones?

Why are we signing our emails with 'Thank you'?

Work and Life in a Hyper-Connected World

Why do we need to have so many meetings?


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Photo Credit: K. Steudel