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The Project Postmortem: An Essential Tool for the Savvy Developer

It’s pretty rare for a software development project to go
perfectly. In fact, although developers tend to have eternal faith
that the next project will succeed completely according to
plan, I can’t think of a single project that I’ve been involved with
over the past 25 years that went off without a hitch. Dealing with
bugs, sudden requirements changes, hardware and software that break
down mid-project, unexpected personnel turnover, baffling interactions
between components, malevolent servers, and incompetent subcontractors
seem to be the order of the day. The question is not so much whether
you’ll get hit with something unexpected, as how you’ll deal with it –
and what you can learn from it for the next project.

The difference between average programmers and excellent developers is
not a matter of knowing the latest language or buzzword-laden technique.
Rather, it can boil down to something as simple as not making the same
mistakes over and over again. Fortunately, there’s a powerful tool that
any developer can use to help learn from the past: the project
postmortem.

Building an Institutional Memory

Though the name is well-established by now, “postmortem” has somewhat
unfortunate connotations. The purpose of a good software postmortem isn’t
to carve up the corpse of a collapsed software project so as to assign
blame for failure (though in dysfunctional organizations postmortems get
used this way anyhow). Rather, the goal is to build up an institutional
memory and develop a set of best practices that work for your own
organization by meticulously recording what went right and wrong
over the course of a project.

The difference between an organization with a culture of postmortems
and one without can be dramatic. This is probably in part because of the
good effects of postmortems, and in part because companies that lack the
discipline to perform postmortems tend to be at a rather chaotic level of
practice. When postmortems are institutionalized, you’ll find people
saying things like “we organize our source code tree this way, because
we’ve found in the past that it works well” or “we stopped using that
particular risk assessment practice because it just wasn’t giving us any
useful information.” Without postmortems, developers are more likely to
invent techniques as they go along, without much regard for what may or
may not have worked in the past – and more likely to be surprised when
something fails for the second (or third, or tenth) time.

Like most other organizational changes, effective use of software
postmortems can’t be mandated from above without employee understanding
of the benefits, and it’s very hard to sneak in from below without
management support. But management can go a long way to create a welcoming
environment for postmortems, and developers can educate management about
the benefits. If you’re not already using this practice in your own
organization, you can start any time – as soon as your next project ends,
in fact.

Nine Suggestions for Effective Software Postmortems

While it’s impossible to give a single set of rules that work for every
development organization, there are some things that (in my experience, at
least) make software postmortems more effective. If you’re starting (or
refining) a practice of postmortems, you may find some useful advice
here.

1. Plan for Postmortems – Your project plan should explicitly
set aside time and space for the postmortem. To get the most value out of
this activity, you need to take it seriously; people need to have time to
think without being thrown immediately into the next project. The
postmortem should be a scheduled activity, with time for a meeting of the
team to discuss the lessons learned and time for someone (or some group)
to write the postmortem report. If you can finagle a nice off-site
conference room for this, so much the better; a little physical (and
psychic) distance from the day-to-day workspace seems to help some people
see more clearly what they spend their regular workday doing.

2. Keep it Close in Time – Don’t let memories fade by scheduling
the postmortem too long after the end of the project. Ship the software,
have the celebration, and then roll right into the postmortem, rather than
waiting for a convenient break in the action (which never comes, anyhow) a
month or two later. On longer projects (anything over a couple of months),
you need to encourage people to keep notes towards an eventual postmortem,
or hold a series of mini-postmortems at milestone dates, lest things get
forgotten.

3. Record the Project Details – Part of the postmortem report
needs to be a recital of the details of the project: how big it was, how
long it took, what software was used, what the objectives were, and so on.
This is not padding, but a way to help people looking for applicable
experience in the future. If you build up a library of dozens of
postmortems, a team about to embark on a 5-person, 6-month effort can use
the project details to look for similar projects that the organization has
tackled in the past.

4. Involve Everyone – There are two facets to this. First,
different people will have different insights about the project, and you
need to collect them all to really understand what worked and didn’t. (In
the worst of all possible worlds, the postmortem gets written exclusively
by two or three top managers and is worthless except as a pat on the back
for management). Second, getting everyone involved – by requiring their
attendance at a meeting, if necessary – helps prevent the postmortem from
degenerating into scapegoating. It’s a lot harder to grouse that “Bob
always screwed up the build” if Bob is sitting right across the table –
and a lot easier to look for the more important lesson (in this case,
likely something to do with the fragility of the build process).

5. Get it in Writing – The postmortem effort will usually kick
off with a team meeting (unless the team is very small; fewer than 5 can
probably conduct a postmortem entirely in e-mail), but it can’t stay
there. If it doesn’t, you’ve got a bull session that will soon be forgotten,
not a postmortem that will inform people in the future. The project
manager needs to own the process of reducing the postmortem lessons to a
written report, delegating this if necessary.

6. Record Successes as Well as Failures – Unless your project
was an unmitigated failure you need to spend time recording what went
right as well as what went wrong. It’s easy for a postmortem to degenerate
into a blame session, especially if the project went over budget or the
team didn’t manage to deliver all the promised features. But people need
to hear positive messages as well as negative ones, and they need to hear
what things are worth repeating as well as which things are worth avoiding
in the future.

7. It’s Not for Punishment – If people think you’re using the
postmortem to plan salary cuts or firings, or otherwise hang the blame for
a failed or suboptimal project, they’ll lie about what happened. It’s as
simple as that. If you want honest postmortems, management has to develop
a reputation for listening openly to input and not punishing people for
being honest. And the way to get that reputation is by not punishing
people. (Of course, no one ever objects if the postmortem identifies some
superior performers who get a bonus. Nobody ever said life was fair for
managers either.) If possible, try to juggle the schedule so that
postmortems and annual reviews don’t come too close to each other.

8. Create an Action Plan – Step 1, meeting; step 2, written
postmortem. Don’t let it stop there! There should be a step 3: action
plan. The written postmortem should make recommendations of how to
continue things that worked, and how to fix things that didn’t work.
Remember, the idea is to learn from your successes and failures,
not just to document them.

9. Make it Available – A software postmortem locked in a filing
cabinet in the sub-basement does no one any good. Good organizations store
the supply of postmortems somewhere that they’re easily found. If you’re
the one responsible for producing one, you should consider sending out an
e-mail at the end of the process saying something like, “The XYZ project
postmortem is finished and available at servershare. We recommend that
future teams do a, b, and c and avoid d, e, and f. For more details, feel
free to read our whole postmortem.”

A Competitive Advantage

Software postmortems, performed consistently, are a key part of
bringing a development organization from chaos to smooth, repeatable
functioning. In fact, if your development efforts are completely
disorganized, postmortems can be a great way to start turning things
around, because they will help you identify and keep the good parts while
finding and throwing out the bad parts. If you’re not already using this
essential tool, it’s never too late to start.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy is the Senior Technology Partner for Adaptive Strategy, a
Washington State consulting firm. You can read more of
Mike’s work at his Larkware Web site, or
contact him at [email protected].

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