Thursday, July 5, 2012

Learning from a Project "Post-mortem"

It is important for a project team to review the project as a whole at the end of the project regardless of project success or failure.  This review can lead to a list of lessons learned so mistakes are not continually repeated going forward (Greer, 2010).  I was involved in a proposed project at a software company where the Vice President of Knowledge Management wanted to create an online community for our customers to share ideas, challenges and success stories. It would be an alternative to their usual technical support channels. I knew, in talking with our customers on a regular basis, that many asked for a tool to collaborate with other customers as part of their annual support subscription. I thought the project proposal was excellent and would help sustain our existing support contracts and get people talking about our product. I joined the team as a customer representative and subject matter expert. The concept was excellent, the need was there, and the final design was impressive, but the project was shot down before it ever had a chance to test with customers.

The concept was initiated by the VP, and he also elected to manage the project. This was the first issue that contributed to the project's failure because ultimately, his intentions were not in the best interest of the company. By this, I mean that he believed that the success of this project was going to set him above the rest of the executive staff, thus bolstering his career in the eyes of the company. This set the tone for the whole project plan because he kept the project details on a ‘need to know’ basis.  He wanted to keep as much of the project details secret so that he could stage a big company reveal. In doing this, his focus was purely on the design, and he did not consider any risks, constraints or assumptions. Project managers give themselves the greatest chance for success if they prepare at the outset for how to minimize any associated negative consequences (Portny et al., 2009). The VP set himself up for failure by ignoring potentially negative consequences and focusing only on his personal gain.  His narrow focus proved to be disastrous when he demonstrated his online community prototype to the entire company. His big reveal turned out to be a colossal flop.

Photo credit

During the demonstration, the VP was pelted with questions about site security, maintaining site exclusivity for our customers, product information leakage, and resources for discussion moderation. The company was so put off because these critical factors were not considered that no-one wanted to back the project. Despite the excellent concept and proven customer need, the narrow, selfish focus of the project sponsor, poor project management and restricted communication left the online community idea on the table. To this day, no one has wanted to attempt to conduct a project post-mortem or revive this project, despite the fact that the VP has moved on to another company. 

Greer, M. (2010).  The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.

Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Kramer, B. E., & Sutton, M. M. (2009). Project management. John Wiley.



  1. Julie,
    I enjoyed your project post-mortem, and am sure that these types of situations happen frequently when project managers are more interested in their personal gain than in the well-being of the project or company. Heldman (2003) speaks to this issue when she says, "Working toward your own promotion instead of keeping the integrity of the project process and the product of the project as your top priority would call your personal integrity into question."

    Heldman, K. (2003). Project Management Jumpstart. SYBEX Inc., Alameda, CA, USA.

  2. Julie, isn't it interesting how a well-behind-them failure can make everyone skittish about a post-mortem? I suspect that whoever approved this VP in the project manager's position wants to lay low. Easier to hide from the problems from the rest of the world than to face them and learn from them.

  3. Julie,

    It sounds like the VP was a piece of work. Effective communication is a must in order for a project to be successful. Why would the VP want to be the project manager of the project when he/she was the one that initiated? Like you said that is a bad idea from the start. What was the purpose of asking for help if the VP was not going to utilize the help? It sounds like a project that I would not wanted to be a part of. Dr. Charles Murphy states that a project manager should be able to plan, reiterate, organize, delegate, understand, communicate, and evaluate (Murphy, 1994). It sounds like this VP did not have any of these traits.
    Murphy, C. (1994). Utilizing project management techniques in the design of instructional materials. Performance & Instruction, 33(3), 9–11.
    Copyright by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Used by permission via the Copyright Clearance Center.

  4. Hi Julie,

    The example you shared as a post-mortem report explains how in order to achieve personal gain a person can literally destroy any chance of their organization becoming a better service provider for their customers. Retrospectives and post mortems are useful exercises to not only review project metrics, pitfalls and successes, but as a way to allow the team to openly discuss their thoughts and perspectives of the project (Drinkwater, 2011). Even if it’s just a closing review of what went wrong, a project review can provide the involved project team to vocalize their about the project and maybe work out a new project plan.


    Drinkwater, A. (2011, October 20). Project Baggage. Retrieved from

  5. Julie, it must have been frustrating to be involved in a project where initial input was not welcomed by the project manager. According to our text, it is critical to identify your project’s process for submitting, logging, approving, and adopting change requests. The authors go on to explain that by defining this process early in the planning stage, the same rules and expectations are communicated to all project participants and Stakeholders. The benefit is that including the core team members in this process and planning for their input also helps to reinforce that this is their project (Portney, 2012).

    The key factor missing in this project that contributed to its failure was the lack of a well-defined “communication plan”. This element is referred to in all project management resources as critical to the outcome of the project, yet some project managers neglect to give adequate attention to this critical area. If you want your project to succeed and be visible throughout its life, Michael Greer recommends that all project managers “communicate, communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more” (Greer, 2010). He outlines its purpose as a method of documenting information about project based upon pre-determined goals and objectives dictated by the Stakeholders. He offers an important piece of advice, “Listen to what the recipients want. Listen to input from the core team and use it to give them what they want the way they want it. It will elicit their support for the duration of the project.”

    Retrieved from

    Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc.

    Larson & Larson (n.d.). Exploring the PMBOX guide”. Retrieved from

    Portny, S., Mantel, S., Meredith, J., Shafer, S., Kramer, B.,& Sutton, M.(2008. Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,Hoboken, NJ.

  6. I love the picture, and I think every company has a personality like this. The type that wants to make a name for themselves or just increase their power and control over others. I kind think of several people who won't ask for help because they want to be crucial and valuable and they think that if we need them their job will be safe. It makes life very difficult when you have to work with someone like this.