Project Post-Mortem: The Lessons Learned

As I thought through this assignment, I reached out to several colleagues, friends, and family and asked: “have you ever been on a project that failed”? Overwhelmingly the answer was “No”. This led me to clarify the definition of failure, then and only then did the responses start to differ. Given this experience, I will start by defining “project failure”. Mar (2012) defines project failure in five easy ways:

  1. Stakeholder’s views – did they believe the project failed?
  2. Delivery to plan – did the project meet time, budget and quality targets?
  3. On time delivery – was the project delivered on time?
  4. Financial results – did the project meet its projected results?
  5. Minimum return – did the project meet its ROI target?

If the answer to any of these five questions is yes, the project failed.

The project

Annually, as an investment in employee welfare the company plans a staff party or outing. The year in review the staff all decided they wanted an outing and so the social committee was gathered to make the plans. The team convened several meetings to get ideas together and issued a survey for the general staff to select locations from those the team identified. A significant number of the staff decided on a particular location, so the team started planning for that location. A date was identified, budget determined, action lists created, and tasks assigned. Planning went smoothly for the most part, but we had one major hick-up, the date for the outing was not widely communicated to the staff. As stakeholders in the project, they felt their needs were not considered, so several members of staff said they would boycott the outing. The social committee continued planning for the full staff complement which proved to be a good move. On the day of the outing majority of the team showed up and we were underway. From the committee’s standpoint, it was a great day. The buses arrived on time though our planned departure time was off by nearly 30 minutes, yet we got to the hotel on time. The hotel was well prepared for us. Food and beverage were served all day, and there were several activities in which the staff participated. We had an incident-free return to the office, and all staff members went home safely.

Post-mortem

A few days after the outing we issued a survey to the staff to get their feedback on the day and activities. During the post-mortem meeting, we discussed the survey and the highs and lows of the project. As expected majority of the staff felt communication was a problem, but what was the biggest surprise for the committee was that they all disliked the location and were disgruntled about the service received.

What went right?

The project was completed on time and under budget. Additionally, all necessary safety and risk precautions established by the company were observed

What went wrong?

The team operated based on the stakeholders’ choice. Because the majority of the staff decided on the location, the restrictions imposed by the hotel were ignored as the committee felt the staff ‘s choice should be honored. There was no site visit to the hotel because of budget constraints. Additionally, while there were persons assigned to various communication tasks, there was no clear communication plan. Updates were directed to the management team with brief discussions of the outing in staff meetings. A poster was placed on the noticeboard a week before the outing. However, the team planned the outing for the better part of 4 months.

The informal nature of this project led the team not to complete some of the traditional documentation found in a project, for example, a schedule of work and communication plan. Greer (2010) provides several templates that could be used by the team to address the shortcomings. Firstly a project communications planner (p. 34) could identify, the who, what, how, and when of communications and help the team to reach all stakeholders.  Additionally, the use of a responsibility matrix (p.12) would help the team to define who will be included in each activity. This would have helped to identify which tasks would be undertaken by who and all the players in the process.

Portny et al., (2008) explains that a project manager should determine why the organization selected the project (p. 13). In this particular case, the committee and committee head, acting in the capacity of project manager, should have identified why the staff selected the location they did.  In retrospect, we learned that they picked the hotel because it had a waterpark. However, the hotel had several excessive restrictions that prevented staff from really enjoying their stay. We could have accomplished the goal of getting the team to a waterpark with fewer restrictions by choosing another location. We did not take the time to investigate their choice and so had to plan other activities to make up for the failed trip.

References

Greer, M. (2010). The project management minimalist: Just enough PM to rock your projects! (Laureate custom ed.). Baltimore: Laureate Education, Inc. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/bbcswebdav/institution/USW1/201660_02/MS_INDT/EDUC_6145/Week%202/Resources/Week%202%20Resources/embedded/pm-minimalist-ver-3-laureate.pdf

Mar, A. (2012, November 14). 5 definitions of project failure. Retrieved from simplicable.com: http://management.simplicable.com/management/new/5-definitions-of-project-failure

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

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10 thoughts on “Project Post-Mortem: The Lessons Learned

  1. Camille,

    You discuss an overall feeling of a lack of communication. It seems people wanted to access a waterpark more than anything else. This could be either a failure on project leaders to ask the questions needed to identify the true desires of everyone, or everyone answering was simply not as honest as necessary to ensure selection of a proper site to host the event. However, if this event is to be repeated, the post analysis will help ensure future events of this nature have the proper criteria attached to them, avoiding potential early pitfalls like vague objectives, not involving all key stakeholders, poor team communications, and not writing down key information (Portny, Mantel, Meredith, Shafer, Sutton, & Kramer, 2008, pp. 106-107).

    Thanks for sharing your experience!
    Michael

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

    Like

  2. Camille, this is a great example of a project that succeeded on many levels but had room for improvement. Do you think that it was just a need for more communication after the initial survey that may have made a difference? Is it possible that anything else played into the project, were the right people on the committee? Sometimes I find that people are chosen based on management’s perception of a situation only to discover that having different levels of staff members represented would have made an improved difference.

    One example would have been a similar outing, our company rotates one year we have a holiday gala type party at the end of the year, the next year we have a family cookout outing at our site. This past summer we had the cookout. There was a fantastic catering company and wonderful food, in addition a DJ, a photo booth, a kettle corn cart, a make flash frozen ice cream cart, and games for the kids (giant jenga, a corn hole game, and an inflatable slide).

    Many people complained because their children had to wait in long lines for the slide and the face painting. The planning committee were all people with grown children or no children so they hadn’t thought about how many staff members children would be in attendance and in the lines created by not having enough entertainment.

    I believe that if there had been one or two parents on the planning committee this would have been considered, perhaps the entertainment budget could have been spent differently to include more games, a second face painter, etc.

    Amy

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    • Great point, Amy. The committee comprises of varying levels of staff with only one senior manager. I don’t think it was just more communication. I think part of the challenge is that the committee members have not rotated in many years. They have become accustomed to the complaints and sometimes caustic remarks from the staff. There was little desire to dig further. I guess the mindset was “they want this so we are going to give them what they want”

      Like

    • You made several great points, Amy. Thank you for sharing your story too. Committee members should be rotated and they should have considered parents of younger children during the planning process because clearly- they weren’t the experts. Personally, I think it is selfish when people do not pull others in when they aren’t sure about a particular matter.

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  3. Hi Camille,
    I have worked on planning events for large groups of people and have encountered the same or similar problems as you discussed in your blog. The event committee planned the event based on what we thought would be best and on suggestions for venues from other committee members, only to find out later that the clients did not enjoy it as much as we had hoped or thought. In the statement of work, one of the things that Portney, et.al., suggests including is a section for assumptions: statements about uncertain information the project manager is taking as fact while conceiving, planning and performing the project.

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  4. Hi Camille,
    Your post is quite interesting. Being someone who is quite familiar with your context, I can see those concerns about the outing. Proper planning of the outing may have been weak as well although the planners may have thought that everything were in place, Documentation of activities and events should have been in place and as you said that other places should have been investigated. Jamaica has so many attractions that you cannot go wrong choosing the best. According to Allen & Hardin ( 2008), ” In order to be successful, a project must be well-organized and thoroughly-documented” (p. 85). The work breakdown plan could have been used to ensure that everyone was on board and everything that were suppose to be done during the outing were organised. Investigating site of project and total availability are a good idea. I will assume that the hotel did not communicate that the group could not use the waterpark until the group arrived. The reason I said this-because if the group planners knew before, a change would have taken place.

    Reference:
    Allen, S., & Hardin, P. C. (2008). Developing instructional technology products using effective
    project management practices. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(2), 72–97.
    Copyright by Springer-Verlag, New York. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu.

    Liked by 1 person

    • HI Stacia,

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, we certainly could have done better at documentation. Just to clarify, the hotel did not prevent us from using the waterpark. There were time limits on use as well as strict limits on what can be done when. I believe what was most upsetting to the team was how we were addressed by one manager who insinuated we were mere thieves and worth less than the other guests in the hotel. This was totally unacceptable, especially after we paid $1 million to the hotel to use it for one day.

      Camille

      Like

  5. Dear Camille
    Thanks for sharing your experience. When I started this course two weeks back, I was surprised to learn of the different kinds of “projects” I have been involved so far, either as a driver, observer or supporter, without even looking at it from that perspective. Perhaps a few lessons could be learned form the evaluation of this project:
    1. Could the staff be surveyed before the venue was decided? I understand that there were budgetary constraiants, but someone may have had an idea or knows someone outside the organization who does.
    2. Could the entire process be documented, maybe in an informal setting like a wiki or a google site, that would be used to create a RASCI chart?
    Regards
    Neville

    References

    Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). Defining the scope of an ID project [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu

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

    Like

  6. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Camille. In your case, it does sound as if your project was successful with some opportunity but it’s rare that we will ever satisfy every person in our audience. Communication the most important aspect of any project but at least this is something that can be improved upon. In my opinion, the announcement for any outing should be known at least one month in advance. I understand that there were budget constraints but I do believe that not going to the location was a downfall. Being that you came in under budget, you should use that to justify using that extra money for a test run. Even if one person could have gone to conduct a tour, take pictures, meet with the staff, etc. Maybe someone would have even volunteered to go at their own expense? This way, a presentation could have been made to the committee and forgotten questions would have been raised and could have been addressed.

    Like

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