How to Run a Project Post-Mortem in 10,000ft

Not every project will be a success. Here's how to figure out what went wrong and what to improve in the future.

Airplane from above

We’ve all been there: it's the end of a project that was - more or less - a failure. Everyone is frustrated. Maybe the project was misestimated from the start, maybe there was one big setback that really screwed things up, or maybe it was just a bunch of smaller issues that all conspired together to derail the project.

Regardless of what happened, before you try to forget about this one by diving into the next project, it's important to run through a data-driven project post-mortem so you can learn from this project's mistakes and improve future projects. Plus, maybe there were some things that actually went really well in this project. Don't miss out on all the lessons - both good and bad - that you can glean from a failed (or less successful) project.

In this post, we'll walk through steps you can take in 10,000ft to break a project down to understand what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future.

Learning from project actuals

When a project fails, you want to be able to pinpoint the cause so you can adjust your process in the future. One of the best ways to do that is to compare how a project performed to what you estimated in the beginning, and to find places where your original estimate was off.

How did my project actually go compared to the estimate?

time and fees report

How to run this report:

Type: Time & Fees: Hours | Amounts | Hours & Amounts (depending on how you want to see the data)
Time Frame: Select the project's start and end dates. As a shortcut, if you navigate to the project page and click "Time & Fees Report" in the lower right corner, the project and dates will auto-populate.
First Group By: Project
Then Group By: Team Member

  • In the "Incurred" column you can see total actual hours or fees from your team's time sheets. The delta between the estimated and scheduled hours is shown in the "Difference from Past Scheduled" column.

How to dig in deeper:

From here, pivot the “first group by” to Phase Name (but keep the second grouping as Team Member"), which will break down how your phase estimates stack up against how much your team incurred in time or billable fees.

phase estimates project specific

If something stands out - for example, you might notice that there was one phase where everyone worked way more than anticipated, like the Administration phase in the report above - you can use the filter options on the left to isolate that phase.

From there, you can change the “group by” options to get more granular. Maybe you want to group by Week or Month and then Team Member to see if there was a certain time period where the majority of the work ran over. It can also be helpful to group by Category of Work to understand the type of activities that pushed your team over budget, or group by Discipline to see if there are trends across teams.

The goal here is to first look at the big picture of the project, then methodically go through and dig into trouble areas to know which questions you should be asking. As a team, you can then hold a retrospective where you discuss the areas you identified for improvement so your subsequent projects can run more smoothly.

Spotting problems before they become bigger issues

Since all of your data in 10,000ft is real-time, you can get live status updates at any point to see when a project is at risk for running over budget. Once you clearly see what is forecasted to run over budget, you can decide the best way course-correct: Should you swap a Senior Designer for someone more junior to stay within your fee budget? Pull in some more experienced people to get the work done more quickly? Go back to the client to request a fee increase? Yes, that last one is always a dreaded decision, but it's a much more realistic ask when you can anticipate the problems well in advance.

How close are we tracking to all of our project estimates this quarter?

quarterly project budget overview

How to run this report:

Type: Budget: Amounts | Days | Hours
Time Frame: This Quarter
First Group By: Projects
Then Group By: None

  • This report shows incurred time or fees against the budgets for all active projects this quarter. You can also see projected revenue based on project actuals.
  • From here, you can change the groupings depending on the data you want to see. For example, to see how budgets are tracking by client, first group by Client, then group by Project.
  • You can also use the filter options the hone in further. If you want to see only completed projects, you can select “Archived” from the “Project State” filter. Or, if you want to compare certain projects, you can select them from the “Project” filter.
  • When you see a project that's forecasted to run over budget like the Mobile UX Project in the screenshot above, use the grouping and filter options to investigate. For example, you can group by Phase and then by Team Member, and use the filter to select the project and/or client. This will help you see which parts of the project are forecasted to run over budget, and who (or what) might be driving those overages.

You can also see individual project statuses on the right-hand side of each Project Page. Checking these regularly will help you keep a finger on the pulse of your budgets, even with all the moving parts.

project page showing team member utilization

If you can spot problems early enough, your post-mortems will be less about why a project went off the rails, and more about continuously making small adjustments to improve how you scope and iterate projects over time.

As always, if you have any questions or would like to have someone from our team walk you through the software in more detail, email us at - we're happy to help.

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