The Importance of Postmortems

30 Jun 2021

In the spirit of continuous improvement, an important step in the try-fail-improve feedback loop is analyzing the root causes of failure. The notion of failure only carries a negative connotation if we see such an event as an outcome as opposed to a learning opportunity. The real failure is the unwillingness to identify root causes to prevent the reoccurrence of similar mistakes.

This is all about a mindset. A culture of improvement places significant value on honest retrospection because this is the only way to really elevate performance. Part of that process is being transparent with ourselves and others. Organizational learning comes not only from sharing the good parts but also the bad parts.

A wonderfully useful technique for retrospective analysis is writing a postmortem on actions or events that lead to failure. An essential component of this exercise is sharing those insights with others. When we take the time to analyze and communicate the root causes, not only do we create a sense of clarity around cause-and-effect but the simple act of sharing is educational for others.

A key reason why many of us are reluctant to write postmortems is that we fear judgment from sharing failures. In much the same way that vulnerability can be seen as a sign of strength, sharing postmortems not only creates accountability in ourselves to take corrective action but it also garners the confidence and respect of those around us.

Building a postmortem culture starts with an awareness that transparency is intrinsic to continuous improvement. Starting can be as simple as explaining in more detail why things went wrong and what corrective actions are being taken. Over time, individuals and teams will become increasingly comfortable conducting and sharing postmortems because they will yield the downstream benefits of doing so.