Ex Post Facto

The post project assessment is considered a “best practice” of many organizations. Often applied to failed projects to glean knowledge in order to avoid repeating mistakes. This kind of assessment has become known as a “postmortem.” In a kind of crime scene investigation, a doomed project is dissected to identify the reasons for failure. Some people take offense to the “postmortem” name (particularly when related to their pet project). These pride laden egomaniacs prefer to call these assessments a “lessons learned review.”

While these reviews can be constructive, they require honest and open input. Unfortunately, that usually does not happen. Quite frankly, a more appropriate name for this type of review is “a waste of time.” It is amazing how different people can grind through the same project and yet have such contradictory views regarding the success of the project.

In politics it is called spin: the twisting of data and commentary to fabricate an outcome that, in reality, is not the case. In business it is really no different. In fact, internal politics drive the manipulation of information to create a perception desired by those in power. There is a kind of self fulfilling clothing of the emperor.

It starts with an executive that makes a decision, endorses a project, or commits to a strategy. Desire to succeed and the outright refusal to admit failure drive the individual to construct a story of success around an outright blunder. This narcissistic force is so powerful that they convince themselves and actually believe their own hooey.

All it takes is one lap dog, usually the lieutenant on the failed project, to tell the executive what they want to hear. Together this tandem shift the spin machine into high gear building the case for success.

Now comes the time for the postmortem, er, excuse me, the lessons learned review. The lap dog kicks off the autopsy, covering all the things that went well. Copious accolades are served, with plenty of atta boys, and for dessert, notes of thanks are dispersed. It sounds like an election night acceptance speech. The only acknowledged negatives are blamed on others: groups that did not deliver, dissenters that did not “get on board”, or natural events that could not be controlled.
No one is willing or bold enough to point out that the emperor is sitting buck naked on their throne. So sunshine is blown, sugar is sprinkled and everyone walks out feeling great.
You leave wondering what the heck project was being discussed. A dismal failure by all accounts was somehow turned into a model project.

The only lesson learned is how much time was wasted in the review.