The Importance Of Postmortems

Two weeks ago, when I mentioned, in “Geek As Citizen” that part of being a Geek was to experiment – and thus that was a role we played as Citizens – Serdar brought up the fact that experimenting doesn’t always mean success.

In fact, that’s the point of an experiment. It’s why we call it an experiment, because we’re not sure it’s going to work or even what we’re doing. If we did we’d call it a sure thing, or business as usual, or we wouldn’t have a name for it because it would be Normal.

Experiments aren’t normal. Or sure. Or at times all that planned. Which means they fail.

Which means that it’s time for what we call in the business world a “post mortem.”

(OK, that term actually comes from forensics, but in the business world it’s rarely associated with actual human death).

A “post mortem” in business terms is basically where you look at a project or task – or in our case an experiment – and basically ask “what happened and why?” It’s pretty vital to do in everyday business, but even more vital to do when you went and got wild and experimental or blazed new trails. You try to figure out why you succeeded, why you failed, and what you learned -or should have learned.

(Come to think of it, you may have to actually define success, which you may not have when the experiment began . . .)

If you are engaged in any kind of experimental activity (and depending on your life and career that could be most of the time) when it’s over you need a post mortem to see what happened. That’s how you really adsorb, analyze, and record the lessons of the experience. Sure some of the lessons are unforgettable due to great joy or terrible pain, but this lets you go in depth. It also lets you work with other people to share the knowledge, the findings, and the suffering.

So a postmortem is important for experiments. Geeks are experimenters by definition, and indeed I argue that’s part of how we contribute to society. So if you’re any kind of geek, I recommend getting good at postmortems and not just on the job.

My guess is you probably aren’t. It’s OK – frankly I could be better myself, and I’ve got plenty of brackish, questionable water under the bridge. But either way we should get good at it.

Becoming good at analyzing your various experiments, from that class to new code to a business project, helps you learn and grow. Because you sit down for a moment and take the time to see what happened and what you learned, lessons are found, integrated, and expanded on. With that knowledge, your learning is greatly enhanced.

Becoming adept at a postmortem also means overcoming psychological barriers – or overcoming the psychological barriers of others. It means taking a hard look at yourself, overcoming your fear or that of others, and helping people face hard truths and soft lies. The more you do this the better you’re able to learn because the barriers and boundaries come down fast or even entirely.

Becoming skilled at postmortems improves your ability to pass information on. You learn how to analyze things and communicate. You keep notes or records that others can use, blog posts others can see. You learn the language of explaining success and failure and lessons learned.

Becoming a person that can do a good post-mortem also means you’re in demand. You learn faster, you grow quicker, and you may find you have a skill at figuring out what went wrong. I can personally say that my normal tendency to analyze and even do “mini postmortems” has helped my career a lot – even if at times I seem to be the guy who plumbs the negatives a bit much.

Finally, being good at postmortems lets you cope with failure – because you learn and show you’re learning. We all have unsuccessful experiments, we all have things that went wrong. Being good at postmortems shows you learn, grow, and even build on things that didn’t go quite right or as expected. That’s a testimony to character, skill, ability, and of course defuses potentially tense situations.

But how do you get good at postmortems? My fellow geek you have plenty of opportunities because you are an active person, a hobbyist, and enthusiast. You have plenty of things going on and things that did go on, and that will go on. You’ve got a convention to run, a fnafic to finish, a blog to run. You have a lot to do postmortems on.

Just think of what you’ll learn and how fast you’ll grow with all of the things you do . . .

So, be it an RPG that didn’t work out or a web page that failed or a new publishing experiment that succeeded, do a post-mortem. See what happened or didn’t happen. Learn from it.

Then, next experiment, project, fanfic, etc. do it again.

Then again.

Soon it’ll be natural (indeed in my own experience I analyze on the fly so often I’ve done less postmortems than I should). At that rate, your own improvement is even more automatic and habitual . . . think were that’ll take you.

We’re geeks, experiments. We’re always going to fail, be surprised, or just do crazy things. Might as well learn from it – because that’ll give us even more options in lives and in careers.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Pick one thing you should have done a postmortem on and do it now. See what you learn.

– Steven “Regrets, I’ve Had A Few” Savage