How to conduct a successful project debrief

A debrief or post-mortem at the end of a project can uncover flaws in your process that will only store up problems for the future if you leave them unaddressed. Here's how to conduct meetings that will help you discover better ways of working.

Pick your moment

"Let everyone know it's coming beforehand and don't bring it up during project turmoil," says digital producer Matt Cook. "You want to create a safe space for honesty, not draw lines in the sand. Start by asking participants to phrase the pros and cons of the project in 'I' statements to avoid finger-pointing and scapegoating. Allow for group discussion of individual insights, and make sure you have a clear facilitator for the meeting."

Set expectations

Digital project manager Robert Jolly says: "As an independent project manager working with other independents, post-mortems can still be quite valuable, even if team members on the next project are different. Ideally, effective post-mortems involve everyone who was active on the project. Before the meeting, I like to identify the main discussion points as well as set expectations for what we’d like to take away individually and collectively from the meeting."

Practice learning reviews

Not everyone thinks traditional post-mortems are helpful. Dave Zwieback, author of Beyond Blame: Learning from Failure and Success, tell us: "If your goal is to learn as fully as possible, stop doing post-mortems. This archaic practice only produces simplistic, comfortable stories that do not fit the reality of complex systems.

"If you want to learn more deeply, practice learning reviews. This is a flexible set of learning practices specifically designed for learning in complex systems. It begins by setting the context: research-based rules of engagement required for impactful learning from both failure and success. Working within this new context enables teams to counteract biases and go beyond blame and punishment, allowing more complete accounts to emerge. Find out more here."

Look at the themes

Aaron Irizarry, director of UX at Nasdaq, says: "Starting with what worked means the team can focus on positives. The team not only identifies what worked well, but they re-enforce positive practices. No one wants to be told what they did was wrong, but if we look at issues objectively, in a non-finger pointing way, we can identify areas our teams can grow and improve. As teams do this, themes will arise. I have found that at the end of a session it is extremely beneficial for the team to look at all of the themes (good and bad) and determine next steps to build on their learning."

Centralise the learnings

Amy Kapell, VP client strategy and communication at Closed Loop, has a four-point post-mortem plan: 

"1) Invite representatives from every team that had a stake in the project. If you leave even one of them out, your post-mortem will be useless. 

"2) Capture what went wrong and what went right; both are important. 

"3) Assign owners by name. Without specific accountability you'll all walk out agreeing, but with no ownership to ensure improvements happen. 

"4) Centralise the learnings from prior post-mortems into one master document. Knowledge of the past will pave the road to future success."

Bake it into the process

"We prep our design lead and designer with our questions at the kick-off of every project," says Tim Hartwick, design lead at ZURB. "This establishes to the team that this is part of our process. We ask things ranging from: What are your three goals for this project? to What parts of the project didn't work? Another critical component is getting the right people involved; debriefs are useless if nothing happens with the info. Lastly, keep it positive. The project is over, so stay positive, even if it was rough. It's important to learn from the experience."

Aim for actionable findings

J. Paul Reed, managing partner at Release Engineering Approaches, says: "Conducting retrospectives – we try to eschew 'post-mortem' in cases where no one dies – is relatively simple. Conducting productive, actionable, and, perhaps most importantly, healthy retrospectives is admittedly more nuanced and difficult. Effective retrospectives are a team skill, so consciously carving out the space to ensure they occur promptly is key. Ensuring a consistent structure and honouring the output they produce is also critical."

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 287; buy it here.

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Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 16 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for numerous publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, ImagineFX, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq. For Creative Bloq, she mostly writes about web design, including the hottest new tools, as well as 3D artwork and VFX.