Karin’s Leadership Articles

Post-Mortem of Success: Questions that Drive Sustained Results

by | Sep 18, 2012 | By Karin Hurt, Communication |

Most great project managers know that it’s important to do a post-mortem after any major undertaking. In my experience, a post-mortem is much more likely to occur when something went terribly wrong. I have heard (and said) in the heat of frustration, “we just need to get through this now, but afterwards we need a very careful post-mortem.”

In this funny and insightful post, Lee Cash, shares the challenges with a traditional post-mortem and how to overcome some of them, The postmortem: what it is and how to survive one.

Postmortem: noun:

  1. An examination and dissection of a dead body to determine cause of death or the changes produced by disease
  2. Discussion of an event after it has occurred
  3. A blame fest where, if you’re not careful, you get attributed with everything that’s wrong in the world

In essence, post-mortems are an attempt to review a recent calamity that has befallen the business with the noble intention of isolating the offending causes and making sure they never happen again. The practice nearly always takes the format of a face-to-face meeting (if possible) and involves all of the key players who had a role in the “hiccup”, and hence why you’re all now sitting in a room waiting for the fireworks to happen.

The post-mortem seems less urgent after an over-whelming success. Most of us just celebrate, and then merrily race off to fight our next crises, or build our next remedial action plan.

Why Do a Post-Mortem of Success?

I recently had a celebratory conversation with a leader who was experiencing some fantastic results after months of challenges and struggling metrics. This was turnaround at it’s finest. I was delighted with the progress and wanted to recognize him. We did all that and then, I asked, “what is working and why?”
That’s where we got stumped.
He had theories, I had theories the truth is, so many action plans and efforts had been applied to the problem, we were unsure of which were contributing to the solution.
A bit scary was it the entire cocktail?
How do we isolate the variables?
How would we sustain the progress if we didn’t understand what had worked?
How could the lessons be applied to other areas of the business if we didn’t understand them?

How to Approach a Success Post-Mortem

We decided a deliberate approach was in order. Yup, I ended that celebratory meeting by giving the guy more work. Why, because I believe in the long-run it will save everyone time.

He’s spending time…

  • considering and discussing. what were the expected outcomes of the various interventions?
  • observing: what behaviors have actually changed?
  • measuring: doing deeper dives into the analytics to look for patterns of improvement
  • listening: to folks about what feels better now and why?

Taking the time to understand what is working may be even more vital than learning from our failures.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

6 Comments

  1. Steve Borek

    People tend to focus on the negatives first. They’re not negatives. The team did a really good job on how not to be successful with this project! Celebrate man!

    Sir James Dyson’s engineering team made 5,127 prototypes before they found “the” one vacuum cleaner that went to market.

    I say to clients, “The first one to make 5K mistakes wins.”

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Thought provoking post. We do tend to ignore the reason why we were successful. Perhaps because it is enticing to think of success as the natural byproduct of hard work and what should happen.

    That the only reason for poor results is poor execution.

    Perhaps some fields (science) accept that success will be rare while others (management) seem to think that success should be the norm.

    Reply
    • letsgrowleaders

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation. Love the thinking of norms in different fields…

      Reply
  3. Michael Brown

    I have to be honest. This post really solidified for me that it’s time to sit down with my team and others who have been involved with the success of our project. Many times we dont take a moment to reflect, gather succeses and opportunities and document them.

    I’ve always encoraged my team to reflect and at times we have, but its that time again.

    Reply
    • letsgrowleaders

      FANTASTIC! Thanks so much Michael for joining the conversation. I am glad this sparked some thinking.

      Reply

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