Looking Back — and Ahead — to Set Your Team Up for Success

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Next Step Partners Pre and Post Mortems for Teams

Originally published in Harvard Business Review.

The new year brings with it an opportunity for reflection and learning that can create a foundation for continuous improvement in the year ahead. While we certainly can do this as individuals for our own learning and development, conducting a post-mortem — and even a pre-mortem — with your team is an opportunity to instill a learning culture, build psychological safety, enhance morale and team alignment, and improve results.

As their names suggest, a post-mortem looks back, while a pre-mortem looks forward. While these are typically performed for discrete projects, they can be also done at the start of the year to learn from accomplishments or progress made (or lack thereof) on team goals or initiatives over the last year and identify and pre-empt risks to future performance, both of which are aimed at increasing the chances of success for the goals or initiatives set for the coming year. The post-mortem and pre-mortem are separate exercises but could be conducted as two sessions within a larger team offsite, ideally allowing some reflection time in between the two sessions, as additional insights may emerge.

Below are some best practices to follow to make sure you and your team maximize the productivity of your conversations to help you learn and set your team up for success in the year ahead.

Prior to the Sessions

Consider outside facilitation.

If your budget permits, engaging an outside facilitator to lead the sessions is recommended. This not only frees up the team leader to be a participant (versus a facilitator), but also brings professional expertise in managing group discussions and dynamics. Specifically, a skilled professional facilitator can help modulate the emotional temperature in the room, keep the team on topic, and make sure everyone speaks and is heard by others, resulting in greater learning and clarity from these exercises.

Give pre-work.

Provide the questions you’ll be discussing a few weeks in advance, so that team members can take the time they need to reflect and answer them thoughtfully. This will be especially helpful for introverts, who prefer to think things through before discussing them. Sharing the questions in advance will also allow people time to record their initial thoughts, while providing enough time to come back and add to them, since it’s likely that not everything will come to mind in one sitting.

At the Beginning of Each Session

Designate a note-taker.

Whether you assign a scribe or ask for a volunteer for this role, you’ll want someone to document essential parts of the discussion so that you don’t lose track of key points. This will be important to come back to when it’s time to step back, distill learnings, and create clear actions and accountabilities going forward (which will also need to be documented).

Create ground rules.

These are agreements that are created by the team for how everyone will work together in these sessions (and ideally, beyond the sessions). Don’t rush through these guidelines — provide the space for the team to generate them so there is buy-in from team members as to how the team will operate during the discussions. The final list should be posted somewhere the team will see them throughout the meeting to serve as a reminder, whether the team is meeting virtually or in person. Team members should also be welcome to add to the list at any time if something new occurs to them.

Some suggestions include:

  • Maintain a growth mindset. See failures, shortfalls, or problems as a normal part of business and opportunities to learn and improve.
  • No blaming or shaming. De-personalize comments by focusing on team results, processes, and collective behaviors, not individual team members. (Any individual feedback should be given separately, one on one).
  • Don’t hold back. If you are aware of something that inhibited or helped (or might inhibit or help) team performance, it’s your responsibility to share it.
  • Be present. Do not multitask — stay focused on the discussion. Phones should be on silent or off and, if the meeting is held in person, laptops should be closed (except for the note-taker’s).
  • Use engaged listening. Do not interrupt. Focus on the person speaking and what they’re saying.
  • Be curious. Withhold judgement and ask probing questions to discover more. Don’t assume you “already know.”
  • Be vulnerable. Be willing to admit mistakes or say, “I don’t know.”

The goal of the above guidelines is to create and reinforce a sense of psychological safety so that the conversation can be as open, candid, and productive as possible, and focused on team performance. For example, being vulnerable and admitting to a mistake makes it safer for others to do so, especially if you are the team leader. The greater the psychological safety, the easier it will be for the team to openly acknowledge, discuss, and learn from actual or potential future mistakes in service of improving the team’s performance going forward. There may be other guidelines that you and your team want add to this list, but these are a good foundation to start with.

Conducting a Post-Mortem

A post-mortem is a chance to step back, take perspective more objectively, and challenge the team’s assumptions. Due to our inherent negativity bias, it can be easy to gloss over successes and focus only on what went wrong. It’s important to focus equally on the team’s accomplishments as its failures, so be sure to allocate appropriate time. Research also shows that success can make us less reflective and over-confident, and we tend to attribute successes to our own talents, versus luck or other factors, including external variables, than we do for failures.

It’s important to dig into root causes of success not only to create more opportunities for success, but also to prevent the team from coasting or taking its success for granted, which can — ironically — set the team up for failure in the future. It’s also an opportunity for the team to fully celebrate its accomplishments, so that team members feel appreciated, recognized, and valued.

Questions to ask:

  • Successes
    • What went well and what was the impact of these things going well?
    • What behaviors, factors, or conditions allowed these things to go well?
    • How can we carry these successes forward, leverage them in other areas, or repeat them?
  • Failures or shortfalls
    • What didn’t go well and what was the impact of these things not going well?
    • What behaviors, factors, or conditions led to these things not going well?
    • How can we avoid these issues going forward?

Conducting a Pre-Mortem

Pre-mortems are used to help identify and mitigate risks upfront for specific projects, goals, or initiatives. They should go beyond imagining what could potentially go wrong, to using what researchers call prospective hindsight, in which the team envisions that specific successes or failures have already happened. Putting yourself and the team in this imagined future state of success or failure being realized has shown to improve the ability to correctly pinpoint the causes of these respective outcomes by 30%.

With a pre-mortem, you are effectively stepping into a time machine that has sent you to the future and conducting a post-mortem for things that (in reality) haven’t happened yet, but you are discussing them as if they have.

For example, at the start of the pandemic, my colleagues and I asked ourselves (and our clients): “It’s one year from now, and we’ve given ourselves an A+ for how we managed through the pandemic thus far. What have we done to merit this grade?” Likewise, one of my favorite interview questions for job candidates is “Fast forward to six months from now. It’s not working out. What is the primary reason for this?” On the failure side of the equation, in particular, this type of questioning forces people to temporarily set aside their rose-colored glasses and voice any subtle doubts or concerns that could very well present real issues down the road.

For a pre-mortem, you’ll ideally want to first have the team’s specific goals and initiatives for the coming year defined so the conversation can be more focused and specific.

Questions to ask:

It’s one year from now, and we’re doing our post-mortem…

  • We’ve met (or even wildly exceeded) goals A, B, and C.
    • What were the main drivers that led to this?
    • What other factors were involved?
  • We’ve failed or fell short on goals A, B, and C.
    • What were the main drivers that led to this?
    • What other factors were involved?

Coming back to present day…

  • How can we ensure that we enable the drivers identified that will most contribute to our success?
  • How can we address or mitigate the risks identified that would most cause us to fail?

At the End of Each Session

Recap learning, and prioritize areas of focus.

As a group, summarize and capture the main learnings from the sessions and what priorities these point to for the team to address. Ideally, these exercises will have allowed the team to see things more objectively with some distance, connecting dots that may not have been as easily visible when otherwise heads-down in the actual work. Perhaps the team needs more lead time for recruiting the right additions to the team, greater diversification of suppliers to prevent product shortages, new processes for better intra-team communication about customer needs, or to keep pricing guidelines that have created consistency and properly reflect the company’s brand positioning.

Define next steps and follow-up.

Once the learnings and priorities have been highlighted, create an action plan for the team with initial next steps articulated for each priority, clear ownership of those actions and timelines for completion. By articulating who will do what and by when, there should be no ambiguity about what needs to happen following these meetings, even if the next step for a particular priority is to set up another meeting to continue the discussion to determine relevant actions, due to time constraints in the initial meeting. Ownership for scheduling that meeting by a certain time should also be clear.

In addition, determine a process for ongoing plans for each priority to be further fleshed out and conduct regular follow-up throughout the year. When and how often will the team check-in on progress on its goals and priorities so that issues can be addressed as they emerge, and course corrections can be made? Will team members report in at weekly staff meetings, or check-in monthly or quarterly?

Send summary to the team.

Sending the summary of the key learnings, actions, as well as ownership and accountabilities from these meetings to the team ensures that everyone has the opportunity to correct anything that may have been captured inaccurately and makes sure everyone is working with the same information and understanding. This also allows team members to actively monitor the success factors and risks as they work towards the team’s goals in the year ahead.

Learning and continuous improvement as a team require open discussion about what went well and what didn’t in the prior year, as well as realistically assessing potential pitfalls and opportunities that could lead to future failure or success. Using the approach above to conduct both pre- and post-mortems can help your team increase its chances of continued success.



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