It’s often a dreaded part of the creative process: Weeks after a project has been completed, the team gathers to discuss how it all went. By the time the meeting rolls around—that is, if it even happens—the project’s finer points are a distant memory, replaced by the urgency of the next pressing deadline. Concrete observations are hard to come by, so the team largely carries on as before. But there’s no reason it has to be this way.
In a study of cardiac surgical teams, for instance, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson found no difference between teams that held a formal post-mortem and those that didn’t. “The teams that succeeded were those that were constantly reflecting aloud on what they were observing and thinking, as a way of figuring out how to work together more effectively,” Edmondson writes in Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.
Edmondson calls this practice “reflection in action,” and it’s ideally suited to the kind of complex projects undertaken in the knowledge economy. The teams Edmondson studied were learning a complex surgical technique that would minimize recovery time for patients. As they got up to speed, she says, the more effective groups kept up a “steady banter,” discussing what they were doing, how it was going and what they were learning about improving the process. Their conversations yielded conclusions that the team quickly put into action.
The surgical teams had these conversations as they literally stood over a patient’s body. Other teams’ conversations might happen over lunch, in a quick huddle or even in an instant message thread. Engineers at Motorola who were developing what became the RAZR phone—the thinnest phone ever produced at the time—met daily at 4 p.m. to discuss their progress, including setbacks and successes.
First of all, speak up
One important note: If you’re assessing a project in real time, it’s easy for useful insights to go whizzing by as the Slack window scrolls. Edmondson’s solution: “Simply articulating the challenge is the first step toward overcoming it,” she says. “So you can say, ‘Let’s be vigilant. We don’t want important observations to fall through the cracks because we’re moving fast.’ You may also designate a person whose responsibility it is to capture those items.”
A traditional post-mortem can still be useful, especially in situations where teams need to amass a large amount of data to assess their efforts. In that case, Edmondson says, you can’t go wrong using the U.S. Army’s tried-and-true process for what it calls “after-action reviews”: Discuss what you set out to do, what actually happened, what’s different, and why—and what you should do differently next time. If the meeting is structured and focused, Edmondson says, it doesn’t have to take much time—particularly if your team has kept up a running dialogue throughout the process.
Amy Edmonson’s forthcoming book, The Fearless Organization, explores the importance of psychological safety in professional groups.
This article was created with and commissioned by Post-it Brand.