How to Introduce Postmortems

How to Introduce

Whether you’re introducing postmortems as an entirely new practice at your organization or working to improve an existing process, culture change is hard. Change does not have to be driven by management. Often, bottom-up changes are more successful than top-down mandates from management. No matter your role, the first step to introducing a new process is getting buy-in from leadership and individual contributors.

To practice blameless postmortems and encourage a culture of continuous improvement, you need commitment from leadership that no individuals will be reprimanded in any way after an incident. It can be difficult to get this buy-in when management holds the old view of human error, believing bad actors cause failure and failure is prevented by removing those “bad apples” from the organization.

To convince management to support a shift to blameless analysis, clarify how blame is harmful to the business and explain the business value of blamelessness. Punishing individuals for “causing” incidents discourages people from speaking up when problems occur for fear of being blamed. This silence will increase the mean time to acknowledge incidents, mean time to resolve, and ultimately exacerbate the impact of incidents. You want people to speak up when problems occur so they can be resolved as quickly as possible. Organizations can rapidly improve the resilience of their systems and increase the speed of innovation by eliminating the fear of blame and encouraging collaborative learning.

The inclination to blame individuals when faced with a surprising failure is ingrained deeply in all of us. It may sound silly, but when selling a new blameless postmortem process to management, avoid blaming them for blaming others. Acknowledge that practicing blamelessness is difficult for everyone. Teams can help hold each other accountable by calling each other out when blame is observed in response to failure. Ask leadership if they will be receptive to receiving that feedback if and when they accidentally suggest blame after an incident.

A verbal commitment from management to refrain from punishing people for causing incidents is an important start to introducing blameless postmortems, but that alone will not eliminate the fear of blame. Once you have leadership support, you will also need buy-in from the individual contributors who will be performing postmortem analysis. Share that you have commitment from management that no one will be punished after an incident. Because the tendency to blame is not unique to managers, explain to the team why blame is harmful to trust and collaboration. Agree to work together to become more blame-aware and kindly call each other out when blame is observed.

People need to feel safe talking about failure before they are willing to speak up about incidents. When Google studied their teams to learn what behaviors made groups successful, they found that psychological safety was the most critical factor for a team work well together. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” This also describes what we are trying to achieve with blameless postmortems: the team does not fear punishment for speaking up about incidents. A sense of safety makes people feel comfortable enough to share information about incidents, which allows for deeper analysis, and results in learnings that improve the resilience of your systems.

Google found that high-performing teams with strong psychological safety share two key behaviors. First, these teams demonstrate conversational turn-taking. Team members speak in roughly the same proportion. When everyone is able to share their perspective, the collective intelligence of the group increases. Second, good teams have high social sensitivity or empathy. Successful teams are able to sense when someone is feeling upset or left out based on nonverbal cues.

These behaviors and the resulting sense of psychological safety can be encouraged by modeling vulnerability. A manager at Google found his team was able to find ways to work better together after doing an ice-breaker activity in which everyone shared something personal about themselves. The manager started by telling the team about his struggle with cancer, which helped everyone else feel more comfortable sharing something. Creating emotional bonds within a team leads to greater psychological safety and higher performance.

Culture change does not happen overnight. Iteratively introduce new practices to the organization by starting small, sharing successful results of experimenting with new practices, and slowly expanding those practices across teams. You can start experimenting with blameless postmortems within a single team. To get started, use our “How to Write a Postmortem” guide to share tips.

It is also easy to start practicing blameless postmortems by analyzing smaller incidents before tackling major ones. Because the business impact of the incident is lower, there will be less pressure to scapegoat an individual as the cause of an incident. If someone does fall back on blaming an individual, there are also lower repercussions for causing a minor incident. Simply put, the stakes are lower when analyzing a minor incident. Doing postmortems for smaller incidents allows the team to develop the skill of deeper system analysis that goes beyond how people contributed to an incident.

Key Takeaways

  • Sell the business value of blamelessness: faster incident resolution, more resilient systems, more time for innovation
  • Commit to kindly calling each other out when blame is observed
  • Start with a single team
  • Start with smaller incidents