Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The problem with post-mortems

If you've worked in a large-ish operation for any amount of time, you've almost certainly found yourself in a project post-mortem: a meeting in which the highs and lows of the project are dissected and examined, toward the goal of extracting lessons learned and doing things better the next time around.

If you've worked long enough to get a little cynical about the process, you've probably noticed that the lessons learned in post-mortem meetings almost never result in better process going forward. Generally speaking, no one in the meeting is responsible for taking the lessons and enacting them, and in most cases no one will have the authority to change organizational procedure even if they want to. As a result, the post-mortem meeting is almost always a well-intentioned failure. You may talk about good things, but you won't change much if at all.

The problem, ultimately, is one of memory. If you've ever studied a foreign language, you know that there are two types of memory: short-term and long-term. You can study vocabulary or verb conjugation and have pretty good recall 10 or 20 minutes later. Remembering the same material the next day is quite a bit harder, though, and remembering it a week, month, or year later is harder still. Knowing something now doesn't mean you'll know it later, when you need it.

Language students spend a lot of time struggling with this problem and slowly, methodically moving items from their short-term to their long-term memory. In grad school I had a flash card system that was my evolved solution to this problem: I would test, and re-test, and re-test myself again on vocabulary words at specific and carefully-chosen intervals until I could be confident that I had memorized them. It was sometimes time-consuming, but that was a lot better than not learning the material.

The post-mortem meeting is akin to taking the vocabulary card out of the box and looking at it once. That's a  start, but no one learns from that. Learning comes through repetition and review. Has any business collected and reviewed project insights in this way?