Project Management Doesn't Stop at Project Closure

Performing a Post-Mortem on a Successful Project

As business owners, operators and/or managers responsible for implementing initiatives, we sometimes overlook the value of learning something from our past projects. It is very understandable to ask for a post-mortem on a failed project. However, ask almost any project management professional to do a post-mortem on a successful project and you will probably get a strange look from them. Too often we focus on celebrating our successful projects (as we should) and talk minimally about why it was successful. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating a project's success, perhaps spending time finding out why it was successful will uncover valuable insights, which can be employed on future projects. A project post-mortem is not a simple lessons-learned meeting. It is an agenda-specific meeting where hard questions get asked about the project: "What went well? What did not?" Taking a hard, honest, and direct look with open communications will turn out to be a worthwhile investment in time, energy and money.

What Constitutes Project Success?

Every project is different, so delineating only one factor that determines success is extremely difficult, if not impossible. There can be a single factor, but more often than not, multiple factors are used. Determining success begins at project inception with a choice of who gets to make the decision, such as the sponsor, customer, end users, project manager or team members. Along with that decision, the factors used in making the distinction of if the project was successful are also determined and decided upon. These factors must be written to meet the S-M-A-R-T structure.

S-M-A-R-T means Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or Attainable), Relevant, and Timely (or time-bound). So, for each factor used to determine project success, these factors should be written to meet all five of these parameters. As an example, let's say we are doing an employee benefit project and developed a success factor written like this: "This project will be deemed a success if we have happier employees by the end of year." Not only is that factor not specific (happier how?), it is not measurable (all employees; 20% of employees?) and how would you measure "happiness"? A better approach would be to include all five factors, such as "This project will be deemed a success if employee tardiness rate has been reduced to less than 5% per month and the turnover rate is less than 1% per year." (Tardiness and turnover rates have been identified as factors that relate to an individual's satisfaction with their job.)

Planning for Project Success

Once the factors for project success have been determined, the project team plans the project around those, keeping in mind all the other factors which must be balanced in the project. These considerations include scope, schedule, budget, resources, quality, risk, technical factors and limitations, as well as the project team's abilities and availability. Planning for and using milestones, both for the product of the project (sometimes referred as technical milestones) and for the management of the project (some referred to as PM milestones) will help the project manager and team identify areas where the project is at risk of getting off-track.

Executing the Plan for Success

Almost every project manager has heard the adage, "Fail to plan and you plan to fail." However, let's look at it from a different angle; "Failure to execute the plan will result in planned executions!" Sure, all projects change, but not executing what was planned in a proper way will result in a failed project as well. Reviewing and discussing the pre-planned milestones at the status meetings should always occur. Taking action to ensure the project stays on track with these milestones will greatly increase the chance of project success.

Project Post-Mortems

Doing a post-mortem on a successful project is just as important as conducting one on a failed project. You will ask similar questions, except these will be asked to ascertain what is needed to repeat the success. For example, rather than asking the question, "Where can we improve?", the question should be, "What factors were involved that made this work so well?" Another question may be, "What factors allowed the team to work effectively?" Discovering the positive influences on the project helps duplicate that effort in the future and means repeating project success.

Here are a few factors to consider when planning and conducting a post-mortem:

  1. Plan the meeting for as soon as practical after the project ends. Project team members are often shuffled off to another project quickly after the work on a previous project concludes. Memories fade. Issues that were important a few weeks ago may seem trivial to the individual later, when in fact, they are something that needs to be fixed.
  2. Have a printed agenda. Use of an agenda at a meeting is almost Business 101 stuff, but having one for a post-mortem is imperative. Otherwise the meeting may deteriorate into a blame game (for a failed project) or a back-slapping session (for a successful project.)
  3. Stay positive, focused and constructive. Ground rules for the meeting should be discussed. Things like: Stick to the facts, no personal attacks, cell phones, or laptops. When discussing something that needs improvement, be constructive.
  4. Develop a list of actions others can/should take. Actionable items give those who were part of the project something concrete they can do differently next time. These items should also be specific. Simply saying, "Do it differently next time" is not as specific as "Do (this actionable item) next time."
  5. Share the information from the meeting. Inasmuch as possible, share the takeaways from the meeting with others in the organization who would benefit from this information.

Post-mortems are a part of the project management process and every project, regardless of outcome, should have one conducted.

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