One of the downsides of being a web designer is that you’re always too busy to slow down and look back. No time for a post-mortem on your last website project. You’re working on so many projects concurrently that when one ends you don’t take the time to evaluate how it went. You’re just moving on to the next project, the next deadline, the next urgent task.
It’s good to be so busy. But it’s not good to never take a moment for a post-mortem.
What worked about that project? Did you learn anything? Should you modify your process?
Sometimes a project might be so awful that you need to call this process something more accurate—like an autopsy. Slice it open and see what went wrong.
Why Do You Need a Project Post-Mortem?
The life of a freelancer is busy, so why should you set aside time to evaluate the project you just finished? It’s done, move on. Right?
Moving forward with efficiency is admirable, but you might be missing out. There’s really just one reason to evaluate your work: To get better.
There’s really just one reason to evaluate your work: To get better.
It’s that simple:
- It’s a learning opportunity. You can’t get better if you never evaluate. This is how you do it. Athletes go back and look at the game tape. Freelancers need to do the same.
- You need to do it now because if you don’t take time to evaluate when it’s still fresh, you’ll lose any valuable insights. The passage of time will warp or dull your perspective, and you’ll miss out on the lessons that could improve your business.
- Taking time for a post-mortem will allow you to spot trends. You’ll start to notice when you spend too much time emailing clients or when projects stall out in the contract phase. If you have recurring issues, it’s time to make a change.
- Evaluating your work is an intentional way to get better at your job. Better doesn’t happen automatically. You need to work at it.
- Without pausing to figure out what worked and what didn’t, you risk making the same mistakes over and over again.
How to Do a Project Post-Mortem
OK, so debriefing can be valuable. How do you do it?
- Create a standard process: You want this to be quick and easy, so have a standardized form ready to go. Maybe custom code it, use Gravity forms or just create a Google form. A simple Word doc is fine too, but be sure to have standard questions to answer so you’re not staring at a blank page.
- Ask some basic questions: You don’t need to ask very many, but just go through a few that get to the heart of the project and the lessons you need to extract from the experience. Here are few (more than you need) to get you started:
- What worked about the project?
- What didn’t work?
- What were you proud of?
- Was there anything you were ashamed of?
- How did you like working with this client? What made it work better?
- Did you learn anything?
- Should you modify your process?
- Did this project reinforce anything you’re currently doing? (Instead of what to change, what should you be sure to keep.)
- One approach recommends asking just three simple questions: What worked? What didn’t work? What should we do differently next time?
- Include some metrics: Your form should also include some objective metrics about the project:
- How much time did you spend?
- How long did the project take from start to finish?
- What was your initial bid vs. final price?
- How profitable was the project?
- Find something positive: Even if a project didn’t go well and you’re doing more of an autopsy than a debrief, find something that went well. Look for the positive. There’s surely a technique that worked well or a bit of code that was truly elegant.
- Mid-project notes: Sometimes you might have an epiphany in the middle of a project. That’s great. Make sure you can take notes in the middle of a project to save for your post-mortem.
- Take good notes: When you look back on your evaluation months or years later you need to be able to make sense of it. Make sure your notes are concise, but detailed. If you have more detailed notes, it might help to summarize them at the top with a few bullet points.
- Data storage: As you figure out this process, make sure you have a standard way to store your data. You might want to keep a set of evaluations together and then include a copy with your project files. Or maybe your Google form dumps into a spreadsheet so you have all the data in one handy spot. Just make sure you’re not creating a bunch of files you can’t find or make sense of.
- Don’t over do it: We’ve covered a lot of different ideas, but ultimately you need to keep it simple. You want to make the post-mortem process quick and easy so you can save some ideas, learn some lessons and move on to the next project. Don’t make your evaluation overly complicated.
- Debrief your debrief: Finally, you should evaluate your evaluations. Once a year or so you should go back over your notes and see what trends emerge. Consider your post-mortem process and see if you can improve it. If it’s not working, find ways to make it work.
As you begin your evaluation process you’ll start learning more about what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully you’ll notice some things that can improve your business.
Don’t Just Do It Yourself
But don’t make the evaluation process a solo endeavor. You should ask other people for input as well.
- Anyone you work with: You should ask anyone you work with to offer input. Mainly this is going to be the client, but if you have partners, employees or sub-contractors you should ask them as well.
- Standard form: Yep, you’ll want another standard form. Make it super short and either an email or an online form where you can ask for feedback and a testimonial about the project. Short is key. You don’t want to be asking a client to answer more than three questions.
- Repeat clients: If you’re always working with the same client over and over again, you might not want to send them the same feedback form. It could get a little repetitive and the client is likely to default to the same answers. Consider asking them for feedback on a less frequent basis.
Client feedback can be a great way to improve your process. Getting testimonies can also give you some added marketing ammunition.
Your Turn: Project Post-Mortem
Take some time to look back at your projects and figure out what worked and what didn’t. Self-evaluation is one of the easiest ways to get better.
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