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IT Operations

Stop the Blame Game: 7 Steps to an Ultimate Post-Mortem



Constructive Debriefing: Turning Mistakes into Opportunities

When an error occurs during a software development cycle, it’s not uncommon for the team to gather after the incident and look at what went wrong.

Baking a “post-mortem” or debriefing into the process is a great way to encourage team members to make constant improvements, however, not all “post-mortems” are created equal.

When a debriefing isn’t well facilitated, it could turn into a finger-pointing exercise that instills fear and erodes trust within the organization.

Subsequently, engineers stop sharing details about incidences for fear of punishment. Management becomes less informed about the day-to-day activities while team members aren’t aware of potential failures.

What’s “Blameless Post-mortem”?

To avoid turning a “post-mortem” into a blame game, leadership needs to implement a process during which engineers are encouraged to recount details of any incidence objectively without the fear of punishment or retribution.

Blameless post-mortem” is an approach to debriefing that prioritizes learning instead of “fixing.”

The process focuses on the situational aspects of a failure’s mechanism with the intention of improving the operation of the entire organization, rather than punishing the actors involved.

Why “Blameless Post-mortem”?

The goal of a “blameless post-mortem” is to understand how an error could have happened so the organization is better equipped to prevent it from happening in the future.

When engineers are encouraged to objectively recount the details of the event and the facilitator is empowered to ask questions from multiple perspectives, the team is more likely to discover non-obvious interactions among multiple components within a larger context.

The approach helps present a complete picture that prevents one “canonical diagram” of the event from dominating the conversation, which could lead to “group think.”

It instills a culture in which team members can openly discuss mistakes, fostering teamwork, growth, and innovation.

This approach to debriefing is used by many successful companies in the software and IT industry, including Etsy and Google.

So..... How To Conduct a Successful “Blameless Post-mortem”?

Even though it’s tempting to email a questionnaire to the entire team and call it a day, it’s often not the best way to gain insights and drive innovation.

It’s often most effective to gather everyone involved to have a dynamic dialogue and an open discussion.

Here’s what a facilitator should do to ensure a constructive debriefing:

1. Understand the Timeline

As a facilitator, you need to get a general picture of the flow of events while avoid forming opinions on what happened.

Pay attention to communication patterns, decision points, observations, and actions.

This initial insight will help you structure the debriefing session so you can direct attention to the most pertinent events and information.

2. Gather Objective and Subjective Data

Based on the initial understanding of the timeline, gather relevant objective data (e.g., chat transcripts, dashboards, graphs or logs, time-stamped actions, etc.) to construct a detailed picture.

In addition, look for subjective information such as opinions, judgments, assumptions, beliefs, and individual statements to build context around the events.

3. Augment Your Understanding With Analytic Tools

If you’re dealing with a large amount of data, you may need a log analysis tool to help collate the information and analyze the data to come up with meaningful insights.

The use of machine learning and artificial intelligence has made such data collection and parsing possible. You can also visualize the data to help detect patterns and recognize anomaly.

4. Establish Trust

To set everyone up for a successful debriefing, you need to gauge the fear and anxiety level of the participants and reassure them that the process will focus on learning, not finger-pointing.

You may need to have private conversations with a few individuals to make sure they understand the purpose of the session to avoid derailing the discussion.

5. Prepare Initial Questions

It’s important to foster an environment for candid dialogues during the debriefing process.

Prepare some initial questions to help draw out additional context from participants.

Ask about the actions they took, the effects they observed, the expectations they had, and the assumptions they made.

Focus on open questions (i.e., ones that aren’t answered with “yes” or “no”) to encourage further discussion.

6. Set Expectations

At the beginning of the debriefing meeting, set an agenda and get participants into the mindset of learning.

The session isn’t about finding a single explanation or a single “fix” for the incident. Instead, aim at having an exploratory conversation.

Focus on the “how” of what happened (the description), not the “why” (the explanation) to gear the conversation in a constructive direction.

7. Structure the Discussion

Use the timeline of the incident to guide the conversation so you can focus on exploring “how” the error occurred instead of jumping to an explanation or looking for a “fix.”

Sticking to the event timeline helps participants consider the context in its entirety so they don’t draw conclusions prematurely.

After establishing the timeline, invite participants to discuss the learning points from the event.

The conversation shouldn’t be limited to recommendations for remediation items. It should feel like a brainstorming session aimed at uncovering innovative ways to underpin the lessons from the conversation.

8. Follow Up on Remediation Items

Bring the group back together a few days after the initial session to review the viability of the remediation items discussed.

The team will have time to step back and process the ideas so you’re not making reactive decisions.

Keep in mind that coming up with remediation items is not a top priority. Instead, focus on learning from experience and coming up with new ideas to reduce the likelihood of similar mistakes from happening again.

How To Evaluate the Success Of a “Post-mortem”

As a facilitator, you can gauge the effectiveness of a debriefing by the quality of the discussion, in which the dialogues should be candid and constructive.

At the end of the session, consider the following:

Did the discussion focus on exploring the event and how things worked?

Did participants learn even just one thing that will improve how they work in the future?

Did a good portion of attendees (e.g., over 50%) say they’d attend another debrief in the future?

For instance, Google includes “asking for feedback on post-mortem effectiveness” as part of their best practice.

Taking it into action:

Conducting a debriefing session takes just a few hours and the insights you gain will be well worth the time and effort.

You’ll be able to improve the company’s overall process and put measures in place to prevent future errors.

Not to mention, it’s a great exercise in team building and communications that will benefit your organization for a long time to come.

Following each of these steps can immensly impact performance and improve working processes within teams, break silos between departments and overall have a drastic effect on the overall performance. You'd be suprised to see how much people are actually willing to learn from mistakes and implement these crucial insights into future work process. 

Try it!




Loom Systems delivers an AIOps-powered log analytics solution, Sophie, to predict and prevent problems in the digital business. Loom collects logs and metrics from the entire IT stack, continually monitors them, and gives a heads-up when something is likely to deviate from the norm. When it does, Loom sends out an alert and recommended resolution so DevOps and IT managers can proactively attend to the issue before anything goes down.
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