Why Soft Sciences Are Flawed and Good Solutions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Creativity, Inc." by Ed Catmull. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a project postmortem? How can a project postmortem help you identify key lessons and improve future work?

A project postmortem is an activity done after a project is completed. You discuss the whole project and identify what does and doesn’t work about the process.

Read more about the project postmortem process and its value.

Use Project Postmortem Analyses

A project postmortem is a meeting that occurs after a project is completed in which you discuss the process as a whole. This allows you and your team to speak out about what’s working and what’s not. These postmortems should occur relatively quickly following the end of a project while the process is still fresh in everyone’s mind.

There are four important reasons to hold a project postmortem:

  • Reflect on what you’ve learned. In the middle of a project, it’s often hard to process the lessons that you’re learning because you’re focused on navigating obstacles and finishing the project. Postmortems give you a chance to reflect from an outside perspective. 
  • Inform the people who weren’t in the room. Sometimes, decisions have to be made quickly and without much explanation. Postmortems give you a chance to explain why decisions were made and why they were important.
  • Let go of resentment. Often, individuals or teams can be upset with one another because of issues that occurred during the process. If left unresolved, these issues can fester and explode during future projects. Postmortems give you a chance to voice your frustrations and hash out issues before moving to the next project. 
  • Ask questions for future projects. Looking to the past allows you to better prepare for the future. Postmortems give you a chance to be proactive and figure out trouble areas before moving into a new project.

When developing your project postmortem process, consider the following tips:

  • Vary the way you run the meeting from project to project. If you use the same format and ask the same questions at every postmortem, people will begin to preempt your questions. Because of this, they may game the system, and the information won’t be as valuable. To vary your approach, you can narrow the focus of the meeting or have different groups compare processes with one another.
  • Help people be comfortable delivering criticism. At the end of a project, the last thing most people want to do is talk about issues or problems. To alleviate this, find ways to make your team more comfortable giving candid feedback. One way is to have them make a list of five positive things and five negative things. The balance of positive and negative makes people feel more comfortable talking about problems.
  • Use data you’ve obtained throughout the process. While a lot of factors in a creative process aren’t quantifiable, you can find many things that are. These things include the amount of time certain departments took to produce, the amount of times things had to be changed, and estimated costs vs. actual costs. Use this information to drive discussion and formulate questions. Note: while data is important, it isn’t everything. Don’t fall into the trap of using data to dictate all of your decisions. There are a number of factors that play into the numbers, and it’s easy to find false patterns if you seek them out. 
Project Postmortem: Learn While It’s Fresh

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  • How Pixar went from selling computers to successful animation studio
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  • Why George Lucas sold Pixar to Steve Jobs

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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