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It might be a silly question for non-latin speakers, but it's odd to hear about a post-mortem meeting for a successful project since this expression means 'after death'.

I know that this can be also called Lessons Learned meeting, but I'd like to know if that's correct to conduct a post-mortem (and calling it like this) for successful projects.

Edit: Thanks you guys for all the answers that are coming! As we've seen so many different thoughts (including outside IT, YEY!)

I believe would worth to highlight that the underlying question here is if would be good or not to keep such expression only for failed projects (in the sense of improving the quality of work and communication with stakeholders).


Outcomes: I believe David's answer can be considered as the most impartial answer. It's based on the fact that every industry has the freedom to use its own lingo. But I agree with Steve (and others) who states that retrospective is better for a successful project. But again, I can't put my opinion over an impartial (and well explained) answer.

I believe that from now on, the chosen answer could only be changed in case someone finds a reference where a well-established PM organization (like PMI) stating that post-mortem could not be used for successful projects or something alike.

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People who live a long and successful life die. :) –  David Espina Nov 21 '12 at 18:49
    
That's a good argument, @DavidEspina :D –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 21 '12 at 18:56
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To David's point, unfortunately, it is often the least successful projects that won't die. : ) –  Mark Phillips Nov 21 '12 at 20:28
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I've worked in the healthcare industry for awhile now. If we ever called any of our after-project reviews post-mortem, we'd be severely punished I'm sure. Calling a downed server 'dead' got me into trouble a while back. Nothing with the few companies I've worked for should ever be referred to as a lose of life - Just something to be mindful of! –  cloyd800 Nov 23 '12 at 19:33
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@cloyd800 - Good to know, you should consider writing that as an answer, along with what you use to describe a "post-mortem" in the healthcare industry. –  jmort253 Nov 24 '12 at 18:43
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9 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Every industry has lingo. It slowly evolves and becomes a sort of sub culture of the industry itself. Even if technically not correct in terms of a literal definition or even proper grammer, it becomes okay and common and accepted.

So, no matter how any of us dissect the word, I doubt any of us can say we have never heard anyone use post mortem in our profession and I bet everyone of us knows what is meant by it...at least those of us in the field of for a couple of years.

I use it because it is a PM / consultant lingo word, it is appropriately descriptive for what I want to get across, and those outside of this field have no idea what I am talking about.

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"it is appropriately descriptive for what I want to get across": even for successful projects? –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 23 '12 at 13:15
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I think so, again because I think the literal definition does not apply when used in this context. For example, as a pilot you often hear, and I sometimes say, "no joy," which means the pilot does not have something in sight. Of course, the literal would mean I am not having fun flying my plane. So, even on a great day flying where I am having tons of fun, I would still use those words and the pilot community and air traffic control would know what I am trying to communicate. –  David Espina Nov 23 '12 at 13:29
    
That's an interesting comparison, David. Thanks! –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 23 '12 at 13:35
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I think Retrospective is more appropriate name in this case

Imho, project is dead when it has been aborted (or abandoned), if it has been successfully deployed then the project is very much alive (the code is there and it works!).

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Why is that better than post-mortem? Because of the reference to "death" or some other reason? –  jmort253 Nov 22 '12 at 0:27
    
@jmort253: sure. Imho, project is dead when it has been aborted (or abandoned), if it has been successfully deployed then the project is very much alive (the code is there and it works!) –  Steve V Nov 22 '12 at 1:04
    
Sweet, thanks for clarifying! You should add that to your answer. ;) –  jmort253 Nov 22 '12 at 1:56
    
Yep, I have the same impression... That a post morten subjectively offers the idea of a failed project... But so far, all articles I read about post morten or lessons learned does not clearly states so. –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 22 '12 at 22:04
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In my experience, we should distinguish post mortem meetings from regular retrospective meetings. But I do not agree with the other answers as I don't think it only applies to a failed project.

In software development, teams usually have retrospective meetings throughout the project, typically after each iteration, sprint or whatever you call them. The purpose of these meetings is to improve how the team is handling the current project.

A post mortem meeting is a kind of retrospective that happens when the project is over, and might deal with higher-level concerns : what did we learn from this project? what improvements should we make for the next project? etc.

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I think is it completely fine. I googled it and organizations outside of the Agile world often call their lessons learned sessions postmortem. I found a great article by Jeff Atwood about postmortem in case you are interested. Pawel also has a post about the very same topic and he called it postmortem (in 2008).

The naming is interesting though: I found post-mortem, post mortem and postmortem ;-)

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Yeah, actually I read pawels article before raising the question and I must confess that that article is partially the reason for this question! –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 22 '12 at 22:01
    
In the tribal leadership book a similar meeting is called "oil changing", which is even more stranger than the postmortem ;-) –  Zsolt Nov 22 '12 at 22:39
    
Wow, that's new for me! :D –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 23 '12 at 0:15
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Post-mortem also has strong connotations in English of examining something dead to see what killed it and it is hard to see why it would be appropriate for a successful project. Lessons learned is better as it covers positive and negative experience from a project.

Your gut instinct is correct and you can do your bit by not using the term in that sense and diplomatically promoting the use of a less sinister term.

In my experience, people working successfully in the corporate world are not immune to incorrect English, excessive use of jargon or misuse of correct terms, even people whose first language is English.

However it's also not such a big deal and if other people insist on using it, getting the job done is always more important than the specific words you use.

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I wasn't sure if the expression was also used in English countries... but if so, it's even worse to use it in my opinion. I do agree that it's not a big deal the way we call it, but worth to clarify the (bad) impression the 'post mortem' expression offers. –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 23 '12 at 10:32
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For example, it would be meaningful to say that Mitt Romney and his team are conducting a post-mortem of his presidential campaign. But it would be odd to say the same of Barack Obama who, regardless of whether you agree with him or not, had a successful campaign from a technical point of view. –  Simon Hoare Nov 23 '12 at 11:40
    
Exactly, I totally agree with this view. The main reason for raising the question, however, is to know if that's a common (albeit not formally expressed) rule of thumb. –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 23 '12 at 12:18
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I think this is where PM's, and pm in general, run into problems. We get so hung up on terms. Post-mortem, retrospective, lessons learned, end of project review, etc. We all know what they mean, we all know the intent. And yet we quibble over the specific terms.

You can call it what ever you want. The point to remember is that after EVERY project (successful AND failures), and better yet, after EVERY phase, you and the team do a review of some kind to quantify and document anything you've learned.

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Yeap, do agree, Trevor... but I also believe that the community would take advantage if the terms used would follow some patterns, don't you think? (Alternatively, it's only my maniac organizational way of thinking that may see things like this, hehe!) –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 25 '12 at 3:54
    
Tiago, I agree in principle. The problem arises when you realize that pm crosses ALL communities. So what It calls it won't be the same at gov't Aerospace. So as long as the principle and intent is understood... We'll never get to a point where all sectors use the same terms. in the same way Our only best hope is that we all use the same intent. –  Trevor K. Nelson Nov 25 '12 at 4:03
    
Hi Trevor, I would't go that far for start.. I believe that reaching a consensus in our PMSE community would be a very good place to start. –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 30 '12 at 14:41
    
Tiago, I guess we'll have to disagree. :) I think intent is the best we can hope for on a number of these. Even looking at this question - post-mortem, lessons learned, after action report, retrospective, end of project review - they're all the same thing, with the same intent. But here the question asks whether there's a difference in terms based on success/failure, when even getting the review at all is problematic for most organizations. PM is just too broad a topic to be narrowed down to a finite vocabulary. –  Trevor K. Nelson Dec 1 '12 at 0:14
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Having the same discussion some time ago, and being of latin origin most of the team, we agreed to refer as post-partum... obviously this was also prone of jokes. Some babies are ugliest than others, some are born orphan... As it is said, success has many fathers (I won't elaborate on that) but failure is orphan. Not sure what people on Healthcare would think about that.

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Based on my experience managing teams and working through sprints at companies of multiple sizes, it seems that if you use the term 'post-mortem' to describe a conversation had at the end of a project (successful or not), your colleagues will certainly know what you mean.

That being said, the term 'post-mortem' does indeed have associations with a death, or an otherwise negative event. As a result, the term seems most effectice when its used only to reflect on something problematic, because the usage of the phrase primes your team for a conversation that is weightier than it would otherwise be. Holding a 'post mortem' only when a true mishap has taken plance, and calling everything else a 'retrospective' is a great way provide contrast and psychological benchmarking for your team.

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Hello Ana! It's interesting notice that your concept of retrospective meeting differs from the concept Matthias Jouan shared here. That was one of the main reasons I raised the question: to understand if the concept of post-morten reflects something that went wrong at any level. Thanks! –  Tiago Cardoso Nov 5 '13 at 7:46
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My thoughts and experience is as follows: 1. We use Post Mortem meeting when there are high production incidents. We meet and discuss how the issue happened and what are all the prevention and improvements we can do to avoid the same in future. It is a kind of more to understand and avoid in future.

2.We use Lessons learnt for the successful projects either by meeting and doing sharepoint surveys. The best practices will be archived and shared with the bigger group of project managers in the organization and improvement areas also worked on shared too.

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