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Problem Project Post Mortem

Problem Project Post Mortem

Mike Lenhart

Let me paint you a picture. The dream project that turned into a nightmare is FINALLY over. There’s a lot of resentment and finger-pointing all over the place. What’s worse, there is a lot of silence from the client and printer, for example, which makes it seem like they’ve been swallowed up in a huge black hole. What do you do? Should you do anything, or let a horrible project that died a miserable death stay there? Well, there are times when it may be worth a shot to do an autopsy.

In my experience and from what I’ve read, the biggest problem with doing a post-mortem is finding the time to get the players involved on the project in the same room and then actually doing one. I guess if it’s a one-off project and the client may never be coming into your life again, you might be able to let it go. But, if there is an ongoing project with ongoing problems, and you’re undoubtedly going to work with that same printer or other vendors again, then it’s probably worth it to make the time. Think of all the headaches and stress tests that can be avoided in the future if things are simply talked-out in the beginning.

It’s also been my experience to be more methodical, tactful, and factual than accusatory, disrespectful, and emotional. Of course, the reactions and emotions may have run high during the never-ending project, but, it’s over now. Why keep the old, negative feelings flying around? Try to see things for what they’re worth and what really happened. Take responsibility for what truly was your fault (i.e., get over yourself) and sincerely ask what can be done to “more effectively work together in the future” and how to make sure that such “unfortunate incidents” don’t happen again. I’m certain there will be much learning on all sides (e.g., designer, printer, mail-house, and, hopefully, client) if everybody stays in their own levels of expertise and doesn’t tell each other how to do their jobs. (Again, get over yourself.) If you’re wondering, the client doesn’t even need to be involved in the process, unless they were of viable importance to the production of the job or if you really want to retain their business. Be careful, though, when considering bringing in the client.

Here are some things that we have done when conducting a post-mortem:

  • Start out by talking about the things that went well so the meeting isn’t a total bummer
  • Talk about the schedule and timeline – were things completed and delivered on time? was the timeline realistic?
  • How did the costs go for all involved?
  • Did everybody get what they wanted in the end even though the job was a nightmare? who didn’t and why not?
  • What came up during the project that wasn’t expected and should be made aware of in the future?

It’s always important to thank people for their hard work and to apologize for things that you should apologize for. It’s OK to make mistakes, we all do. What’s kind of unproductive though is when we don’t learn from them and keep repeating them over and over. Holding onto blame and resentments does no one any good and only shortens our lifespans.

If you’re new to all this and are uncomfortable addressing difficult things, try having a follow-up meeting for a stellar project where everybody was happy and there were no problems whatsoever. I don’t believe there is ever a perfect job, but there are those that go pretty damn well. You can also hold a mock post-mortem with others in your office, playing the various roles and addressing the most common things that come up in these jobs. This way, you can ease into the real thing more easily.

Still need more education on this? Again, I’ll defer you to industry associations, such as the AIGA, where there are many resources on this topic on their Websites and through their events and workshops. You can also go online and search for project post-mortems. You may get some mortuary or crematorium services results, but you can weed though those, I’m sure. If you’re still in school, bring it up in class or ask an industry-savvy instructor.

An unpleasant project is not the end of the world and it doesn’t have to be repeated, either. In reality, it may take a few times of repeating the same harrowing file prep problems and color matching issues until new behavior is adapted – after all, there’s only so many times our heads can be beaten against the wall. In the end, the post-mortem is about an inanimate project – not you or your dead body.


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