Fewer mistakes: Doing better project debriefs at your agency

Written by: Karl Sakas

When you go into the hospital for surgery, you want to be sure the surgeon and the operating room team know what they’re doing.

Research in JAMA found that when surgical teams debrief regularly after operations, they work faster and make fewer mistakes.

We can use the same learning process ourselves, even if you’ll never say, “Scalpel!” at your digital agency. The key is to do regular debriefs after each project (and retainer).

Why to do project debriefs

When you do a project debrief (aka post-mortem, retrospective, or after-action review), you’re transferring lessons-learned from employees’ heads into your agency’s institutional knowledge. If you’re committed to being a learning organization, project debriefs are an important part of continuous improvement.

If you don’t do debriefs, you might as well be a rotating team of freelancers that changes on every project, making the same mistakes over and over again.

How to do a project debrief: Three questions to ask at the post-mortem

You can get the best results quickly by focusing on just three questions:

1) What worked?

2) What didn’t work?

3) What should we do differently next time?

If a contractor was on the project, pay them to be on the debrief. Remember, you’re sucking out their lessons learned so you can make money from them in the future; that has value, so pay for it.

Should you invite your client to their project debrief?

There are pros and cons to having clients at your project debrief meetings.

It’s good for clients to feel heard (which can help on getting follow-on business) but it’s also risky to show how the sausage got made… and to reveal the technical debt you incurred but may not have told them about (but probably should have).

Agencies who follow the Agile methodology tend to have clients in debriefs. Other agencies may be more reluctant to open that meeting to clients. It typically comes down to your usual culture of transparency (or non-transparency).

At a minimum, you should do a one-on-one session with the client to ask them the same three questions (even if your entire team isn’t there). They absolutely have feedback about what worked, what didn’t work, and what you should do differently—so get those insights. Even if you never want to work with them again, you can use the insights for other clients.

If you don’t want to do this client outreach yourself, I can do it for you as your agency coach.

Be constructive: Focus on the future

Want to do an efficient debrief? Meet for no more than an hour. Have a detail-oriented person take notes while a good speaker facilitates.

Focus on being constructive. Yes, people made mistakes, but get them logged and move on. Blaming people can feel good in the short-term but it doesn’t really help anything.

Being a smart agency owner isn’t about never making mistakes. It’s about learning from them and getting better.

What do you do with the info you collect?

Half the benefit to doing a debrief is getting things out in the open. But once you’ve got the info… now what?

Different agencies track debrief results in different ways—some prefer Google Docs, other prefer Notion, and others add lessons to an internal wiki or other knowledge base. The key is to find an approach that works for you, and that lets you use the information in the future.

Your project managers should review past debrief results as they prepare to kick off new projects—that’s the perfect time to get a refresher, to avoid repeating past problems. And make sure your sales team is paying attention, too.

What about projects we already finished?

You might go back and do a debriefs for projects that ended in the past month. But it can be overwhelming to think about needing to do debriefs on a backlog of 20 finished projects.

My recommendation? Declare a “post-mortem bankruptcy” on any projects that ended more than a month ago. They’re past. Move on. Focus on future debriefs, instead of worrying about the ones you didn’t do.

Should you call it a post-mortem, debrief, retrospective, or something else?

Everyone has their own preferences. Some agency owners I’ve worked with don’t like calling them post-mortems, because it’s a negative word and implies the project died.

I like “debrief” myself because it conveys the content in a single word. A “debrief” could happen during a project. You can use “retrospective,” too.

Pick what works for you. Remember, the key is to do them and act on them, whatever you call them!

Your debrief advice: What works at your agency?

In my experience, every agency has a different way of doing things. That’s OK—we can learn from each other!

Want to improve how you handle project management in general? Send your team to my Agency PM 101 online training. The on-demand training won’t take people from intern to Senior Project Manager—but they’ll get actionable tips to help you prevent problems immediately.

Question: How does your agency do its project debriefs?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

Frustrated with project management?

Struggling to ensure projects are completed on time and under budget?

It’s time to reduce the overwhelm—for you and the rest of the team.

In my Agency PM 101 training, I’ll walk you step-by-step through everything you need to know to successfully tame the chaos of agency life. Start running projects more smoothly, delivering them more profitably, and finishing on time.