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Bring out your dead: Postmortems

A postmortem, politely referred to as a retrospective, is an important capstone to any project or major incident. It provides an opportunity for project or incident participants to reflect on what happened and how, in the future, to enhance what went well and avoid what didn’t. Unfortunately, postmortems involving multiple teams frequently devolve into blame, ratholes, politicking, and inaction.

As Cindy Alvarez, author of Lean Customer Development, recently described in a talk about constructive postmortems, it’s quite difficult to schedule a postmortem that fits on people’s calendars, ensures everyone and every topic is heard, promotes honesty and candor, highlights successes, avoids blame, and leads to real action. People are busy and feel bad about the things that went wrong. When obliged to discuss challenging situations, they get emotional, jump to solutions before understanding the problems, or withdraw to avoid conflict. These responses are natural, but they don’t lead to improvement and ignore what went right.

Fortunately, there is a way to run a postmortem in 60 to 90 minutes that ensures every person is heard, every topic is covered, and the focus is on actionable improvement instead of blame. Seem too good to be true? It’s not. The method does require a bunch of sticky notes (virtual or physical), a facilitator (ideally someone not involved in the project or incident), and leaders willing to introspect and improve.

I’m not dead

Unfortunately, project issues often don’t die with the project, and project positives often do. That’s why project and major incident postmortems are so important. You want to retain what worked and revise what didn’t.

No one knows a project better than the people involved, and no one can ensure that things keep improving than the leadership involved. All these people need to come together at a postmortem to acknowledge the positives and negatives and act on improvements, without resorting to rants, ratholes, or rifles.

He’s very ill

Before explaining how to run a great postmortem involving multiple teams, let’s quickly cover a special part of incident postmortems: the root cause analysis (RCA). Project postmortems don’t typically involve an RCA, so I won’t mention it below, but the RCA is arguably the most important element of incident postmortems. The key to an exhaustive RCA that uncovers all the issues is using the five whys. Why did the incident occur? Why did that mistake happen? Why didn’t we detect the mistake earlier? Why did it take so long to mitigate? Why was the impact so broad? Keep asking why until you’ve not only exposed the immediate issues, but also the other weaknesses in your system that allowed the issue to spread.

Eric Aside

For more examples of using the five whys, read To tell the truth. For more on running services smoothly, read Bogeyman buddy–DevOps.

Here’s one

Here’s how to prepare and run an excellent postmortem involving multiple teams.

  • First, you need a facilitator and a bunch of sticky notes. Ideally, the facilitator should not have been involved in the project or incident and should have run postmortems before; however, anyone who is organized and can remain impartial will do just fine. If the participants, including project leaders, can all attend in person, then you can use regular sticky notes and markers—enough of each for everyone attending. If some of your participants are offsite, you can do the postmortem online using online sticky notes or messaging. (There’s a new Azure DevOps extension for retrospectives. Pick your approach in advance in case participants need to install an app.)
  • Next, schedule 60 to 90 minutes for the postmortem and invite all the participants. If the meeting is online, include instructions for joining and sticky notes. Teams with 25 people or fewer will only need an hour. Larger teams will need 90 minutes. Try to pick a meeting time when most folks aren’t too busy—Friday afternoons are often a good choice.
  • At the postmortem, ensure everyone has sticky notes and a marker from the start. Wait no longer than 5 minutes for people to arrive, and then the facilitator should make introductions and state the key rule: Focus on the impact of actions, not blame or intent.
  • Use the next 10 minutes for everyone to quietly write down what could have gone better—one item per sticky note. This way, each person is heard and every topic is captured. There’s no need to indicate who wrote which note.
  • At the end of the 10 minutes or when everyone has stopped writing, whichever comes first, instruct all participants to put their sticky notes into their group manager’s pile. If everyone is under the same leader, there’s just one pile.
  • For roughly the next 10 minutes, each group manager reads his or her stack of sticky notes aloud. A designated scribe who can write quickly and legibly on a whiteboard jots down the aggregate list of issues raised. Participants should speak up if the scribe fails to faithfully capture the issues. (The facilitator should ask for a volunteer scribe, if their own writing is too slow or illegible.)
  • Once all the stickies are read, recap what the scribe captured, adding or editing anything missing based on feedback from the participants.
  • Devote the next 10 minutes to everyone quietly writing down what went well—one item per sticky note. When folks finish, collect their sticky notes by group manager, as before.
  • Again, have the group managers read their stack of sticky notes aloud, with the scribe capturing a second aggregate list of positives from the project or incident and the facilitator recapping the completed list.
  • Finally, use the remaining time (typically, around 10 minutes) to pick out action items from both lists, working with the leadership to assign those action items to themselves or someone else attending. The postmortem is then over, with the facilitator thanking everyone for participating and asking the leaders to follow up on action items one month later.
  • After the postmortem, the facilitator sends out an email to all participants containing the two aggregate lists (possibly as whiteboard photos), the list of action items with owners, and the date a month later for follow-up.

Eric Aside

For more on running good meetings in general, read The day we met.

Don’t be such a baby

Why have the group managers read the sticky notes?

  • It’s good for the managers to hear and internalize every negative and positive comment.
  • It’s good for the participants to hear their management acknowledge each piece of feedback.
  • It engages everyone, putting email and other distractions on hold.
  • It calms the emotions reflected in the feedback and avoids issues getting personal.
  • It’s really entertaining.

Group managers may choose to delegate some of the reading to other group leaders, but it’s important for the managers to read at least some portion of the feedback directly.

I’m getting better

Why cover what could have gone better before listing what went well?

  • Typically, participants come into a postmortem with concerns they need to express before they are ready to hear other people’s issues or think about the positives. Capturing problems first gets everyone ready to listen.
  • Recency bias tilts people’s emotional state toward what they heard last. Reading the positives second leaves everyone feeling better about the project.

Oh, do me a favor

Why assign owners for the action items right away and schedule follow-up a month later? Without owners and scheduled follow-up, the action items won’t happen. It’s as simple as that.

You don’t need to design specific solutions by the end of the postmortem—in fact, doing so is often counterproductive. Instead, make the action items about better understanding the problems and drafting proposed solutions. That’s the way you get effective and lasting improvement.

I feel happy

Postmortems can be very effective ways of improving what went wrong with a project or incident and reinforcing what went well. Having participants capture their thoughts on sticky notes individually ensures everyone is heard and all topics are covered. When group managers read those stickies aloud, it’s not only cathartic, it’s often hilarious. The lists of positives and negatives collected by the scribe are documented and shared with everyone, along with action items that have owners and dated follow-ups.

Not every project goes perfectly and not every service runs smoothly all the time. However, we can always improve our efforts and recognize what went well. With leaders who commit themselves to action, each problem becomes an opportunity to excel and each success leads to the next.

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