Learning from a Project Post-mortem

September 17, 2011 at 8:47 pm 2 comments

A few years ago, I worked on a media campaign to promote a healthy eating program. The goal of the campaign was to get members of the target audience to call the agency I was working for and request the program guide. We hired a spokesperson and conducted a radio media tour along with some print and radio advertising. The campaign was very successful. Our evaluation indicated that we reached the target audience and motivated them to call the 800-number to request the program guide – the two goals of the media campaign. The radio media tour in particular was very successful. So successful, in fact, that we crashed the agency’s call center. The night the radio media tour kicked-off, I was on the train on my way from work to a class when my mobile phone started ringing off the hook (or out of my purse). It turns out that the call center was not fully staffed the day the campaign launched. We achieved our objectives but it likely cost us the good will of audience members who couldn’t get through, and it did not win us any fans within our own agency.

In conducting a post-mortem of this project, I think we made two critical errors. Obviously, the first was not involving a key stakeholder. We had gone through a lengthy approval process that involved the office that oversaw the call center, and had assumed they would notify the call center of the campaign. Our mistake was in not confirming this assumption. In project management, it is critical to understand the project assumptions and verify that they are based on sound rationale (Portny, et. al., 2008). At the beginning of the project we should have confirmed that we were absolutely clear on the approval process including how key stakeholders were notified about the activities, and who was responsible for making the notifications. Furthermore, the call center should have been included as part of the planning process since they were an integral part of the campaign. Had they been at the table, they would have known our timetable for kick-off, and we would have been aware of their training schedule. We could have avoided the days they were understaffed or they could have scheduled their trainings for different days.

The second mistake was underestimating the impact of the radio media tour. We should have spent time developing an estimate of the potential reach based on data from the radio stations. We should have developed plans for how we would respond if no one called, and how we would respond if everyone called. Identifying risks and planning for unanticipated outcomes is a key part of project management (Portny, et. al., 2008). In hindsight, had we stopped to consider what might happen if a large percentage of our target audience called, this might have prompted us to contact the call center, which might have saved everyone from some massive headaches.

While a number of key project management activities were missed, several worked well and contributed to the success of the project. For instance, the project had clearly defined goals and objectives that were achievable with time and resources available. This helped the team identify the project needs and focus on the tasks that were necessary to achieve the final outcome (Allen & Hardin, 2008). There was also a great deal of work put into understanding the target audience and the best way to reach them. There were many choices that could have been made in the execution of the campaign, but we discarded those that would not result in motivating the target audience to call the 800 number. Many projects fail because teams rush to tactics without defining the project and understanding how to achieve the goals and objectives (Portny, et. al., 2008). Taking the time to understand our audience helped us plan tactics that were more likely to work.

The project was also well organized. Clear goals and objective, and a clear needs assessment allowed us to break down the tasks necessary to achieve the objectives in a detailed and logical order. This aided the development of schedules and the assignment of resources to the tasks (Allen & Hardin, 2008). It also aided the development of a tracking plan that helped us evaluate the progress of the campaign. Tracking allowed us to monitor the impact of each channel used and make necessary adjustments to achieve the campaign goals.

In the end, the project team successfully focused on the goals of the campaign and developed a plan that was effective at achieving the campaign objectives. The problem was that the team was not focused enough on the other areas of the organization that were impacted by the campaign. While we were able to achieve our objectives, we had to do damage control to minimize the impact of crashing the call center. This could have been avoided had we validated our assumptions, engaged key stakeholders, and analyzed and managed risks.


Allen, S., & Hardin, P. C. (2008). Developing instructional technology products using effective project management practices. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(2), 72–97.

Image of man with magnifying glass. Accessed September 15, 2011 from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?ex=2&qu=magnifying%20glass#ai:MP900321206|mt:2|

Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. dbgregory  |  September 17, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Your organization’s project is fascinating! I noticed immediately that the goals were well defined and that the team seemed to use the project manager’s process to conduct the project. Murphy states, “A project management approach is utilized to ensure that development of time and available resources are used in an efficient manner” (Murphy, 2000, p. 1). It appears that your team was cohesive and that the project was managed effectively on most counts.

    The importance of stakeholders and the impact that they can have on a project, as we have been discussing this week, was evident in your post-mortem analysis. Including the scheduling manager of the call center was essential to a successful roll-out of the program. I believe that it was included on the work breakdown schedule (WBS), but I wonder if there was a checklist that confirmed notification to the call center scheduling manager. This is a very important detail to remember as we work to develop our own WBS this week and consider the contingency plans that might be necessary.

    I agreed with your opinion that the radio station could have provided you with important statistics for the type of audience that you would reach and an approximation of the listeners at the time of day that you were going to run the advertisements. If a member of the radio station had been included earlier in the process, the project manager might have been alerted to the need for more call center representatives and possibly a task related to following-up on the staffing.

    Murphy, C. (1994). Utilizing project management techniques in the design of instructional materials. Performance and Instruction, 33(3), 9-11.

  • 2. Ian Josephs  |  September 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm


    You have done a wonderful analysis of your project in relation the aspects of a post-mortem. It is evident that you had a clear understanding of the project from beginning to end. The office that oversaw the call center was definitely a stakeholder and the assumption that that office would notify the call center must have made things more difficult in terms of trying to foster a well developed line of communication. As such “at the start of a project, the project manager needs to confirm the identities of the people who’ll work to support the project, either by verifying that the specific people included are still able to uphold their promised commitments or by recruiting and selecting new people to fill the remaining needs.” (Portny, Mantel, Meredith, Shafer, Sutton).

    Regarding your “second mistake”, it is almost impossible to estimate the impact of the radio media tour. You mentioned that you should have developed plans for how you would respond if no one called, and how you would respond if everyone called. “Project managers deal with known unknowns by finding out who has the information and determining what the information is. Project managers deal with unknown unknowns either by developing contingency plans to be followed when they find out the information or by trying to influence the value of the information.” (Portny, Mantel, Meredith, Shafer, Sutton)


    Portny, S Mantel, S, Meredith, J, Shafer, S, & Sutton, M (2008). Project Management, Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..


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