How to Run a Post-Mortem With Humans (Not Robots)

Dan Milstein (Hut 8 Labs)
Velocity Culture, Grand Ballroom ABCD
Presentation: external link
Average rating: ****.
(4.48, 33 ratings)


Something Very Bad has happened at your organization. The immediate fire has been put out (maybe some cinders are still smoldering), but now it’s time to get some people into a room and figure out a) how on earth did that happen, and b) how do we make sure it never, ever happens again.

Congratulations, you’re running a post-mortem.

This talk addresses the deep challenges that you’re going to face when you have a roomful of human beings ashamed about some Bad Thing that they were a part of. And, once you understand those challenges, it explains how you can overcome them (spoiler: humor is critical).

It knits together ideas from psychology (e.g. various kinds of ‘cognitive biases’; how the moral instinct works in humans; what humor is and how it functions; etc), with personal experience both running a wide variety of post-mortems, and also building a lot of systems that have failed (sometimes spectacularly).

This talk aims to give you a vision of how crazy valuable an effective post-mortem process can be, plus a wide variety of specific tactics to improve your own practice.

Some topics addressed:

  • The profound, warping influence of shame (and why it’s so hard to avoid)
  • How to recognize the moral mindset, and how to move a team beyond it
  • Tips for defeating hindsight bias (direct, merciless mockery is the key)
  • The promises and the problems of the “5 Whys” approach
  • Why it’s so hard to get an organization to actually invest in fixes/corrective actions/remediations
  • How to build a culture of post-mortems at a company (in particular, if you have a good-sized company, which does not currently have such a culture)
  • Specific tips for learning the skill of leading post-mortems

Everyone seems to agree that learning from failure is hugely important, but it can be a surprisingly hard thing to do.


Photo of Dan Milstein

Dan Milstein

Hut 8 Labs

Dan Milstein is a co-founder at Hut 8 Labs, a (tiny, new) software consulting shop in Boston. He’s worked as a programmer, architect, team lead and product owner at a variety of startups over the last 15 years. He is fascinated by the interactions between complex systems and the humans who build and maintain those systems. Some recent writing includes: How To Survive a Ground-Up Rewrite Without Losing Your Sanity, and Coding, Fast and Slow: Developers and the Psychology of Overconfidence.

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Brant Strand
07/10/2013 4:38am PDT

@Aminie, Dan posted this link to his deck on Twitter:

Aminie Elsberry
06/21/2013 6:30am PDT

Are the slides for this presentation posted anywhere? Loved the presentation and would like to share it with co-workers. Thanks!


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