How to Conduct a Postmortem without Having It Blow Up in Your Face

The project did not go well, and it’s time to talk about it.

But you hate having to do this.

You hate having to do this because everyone gets defensive. You hate having to do this  because people get personal.

And you hate having to do this because the discussion never goes anywhere, lots of heat with little light.

So you’re stuck.

You’re stuck between needing to find out what really happened, commonly referred to as a postmortem, and dealing with everyone’s raw emotion.

There’s got to be a better way.

There is. Here are five strategic steps to conducting a postmortem without having it blow up in your face:

STEP ONE: Celebrate success freely and openly

What you do before conducting a postmortem is critical to its being successful.

The culture you’re creating in your company is the context in which all discussions take place, good or bad. If that culture is heavy on criticism and light on praise, the environment will become emotional and defensive. In other words, not conducive to honest, open dialogue.

I refer to this as bouncing checks.

A check bounces when there’s not enough credits in an account to cover the debits being drawn from it. This happens with people when we make too many withdrawals from their emotional bank account and not enough deposits.

Freely celebrating success, however, makes these deposits, accruing relational equity so when it’s time to talk about more difficult issues, you can without bouncing checks.

STEP TWO: Admit your contribution to the problem

When a project does not fulfill its potential, almost always there are multiple layers of responsibility, or what’s called a contribution system.

As a leader, then, it’s your job to own your part of the system. That means one thing: apologizing. And because it’s the responsibility of leaders to lead by example, leaders apologize first when things go wrong.

Not groveling, but apologizing.

Not apologizing for stuff you didn’t do, that would be lying, but, again, apologizing for your contribution to the problem.

Simple, clear, authentic.

STEP THREE: Keep the discussion factual

When a leader apologizes first, he or she sets an example for others to be open and honest regarding their contribution to the problem. But the discussion doesn’t stop there.

A thorough postmortem takes a deeper dive and looks into all contributing factors at play. For this to happen, however, discussions must be centered on information, not subjective opinion or personal attack.

As a leader this means not allowing unsubstantiated assumptions or questions about others’ motives to enter into the conversation. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday from Dragnet used to say, is the best advice.

Resist the very human tendency to have villains and victims when things go wrong–where one person is 100% wrong and another person is 100% right–and conduct all postmortems without blame.

MORE: Resolving Conflict at Work Without Victims and Villains

STEP FOUR: Correct in private

If, in the course of discussion and analysis, it becomes clear that correction is needed. Correction must be made.

Just not in public.

It may feel good to air your grievances publicly, but it does grave damage to your people and the organization you serve. When correction is done for all to see and hear, it drives issues underground, because no one wants to be subject to public embarrassment and humiliation.

Private correction also gives people the space they need to actually change.

In public, for fear of losing face in front of their peers, an employee may defend their position and doggedly resist change. In private, however, when the stakes are lower, you have a much better chance of correction being heard. And, by extension, a much better chance of having it taken to heart.

STEP FIVE: Leave the past in the past

Finally, learn what you need to learn from a failed project and move on. Don’t bring up other’s failures to prove how right you were or keep retelling the tale of woe. This achieves nothing but vain ego gratification.

Exceptional leaders learn from the past and move on. Be an exceptional leader!

The problem with the typical postmortem is that blame is shoveled out by bucketload, causing people to be guarded in their conversation and protective of their turf. Not exactly the climate for open and honest communication, or for a healthy organization.

Some leaders avoid analysis entirely and never learn from the past. Not a very good alternative either. Follow these five steps, however, and you’ll conduct postmortems that don’t blow up in your face and, more importantly, you’ll lead your people with greater insight and impact.