Part 3 Chapter 25

Part 3 Chapter 25


During World War II, between August 1942 and February 1943, the US fought the Japanese on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. One of the men sent there was Lieutenant Colonel Russell ‘Red’ Reeder.

Reeder was sent by the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, to analyse the lessons American troops had learned in combat on Guadalcanal. His 74-page report, entitled Fighting on Guadalcanal, impressed General Marshall so much that he had a million copies printed and issued to trainees.

What Reeder essentially did was to ask officers and soldiers for suggestions about how things could be improved. These were the kinds of answers he got:

  • “I think in the regimental supply there should be extra canteens [of water] so when an outfit gets in a place … where there is no water, an extra canteen of water can be issued.”
  • “In our training for this jungle warfare there was a lot on hand-to-hand combat, use of knife, jujitsu etc. With the exception of bayonet fighting we did not use most of this training. I have been in many battles since I hit the island and I have never seen anyone use it.”
  • “Teach your soldiers, sir, that when a man is hit in the assault to leave him there. Too many of our men suddenly become first-aid men.”[1]

You get the idea.

All of which brings us to the subject of project postmortems. Everyone says what a great idea they are; very few people actually do them. The reason is pretty obvious – we generally don’t have enough resources to do the projects we’re trying to do, never mind spending more time and effort on one that’s already finished.

On the rare occasions when postmortems are done, they are usually excellent. I personally have never seen a bad one. Quite the opposite. When they are done well, they can contain 20, 30 or 40 recommendations of things that could be improved or done differently.

And then what happens?

Well … nothing. Nothing happens. For exactly the same reason. Who has time and resources for any kind of project management improvement project? We don’t have enough time and resources to do everything we’re trying do already.

For these two reasons, then, there’s a place in our world of light project management for a light postmortem. Here’s a light postmortem that wouldn’t take more than a few minutes. It covers three things.

1. The project plan as it occurred

Assuming that you did the tracking as described in chapter 22, you already have this. It’s your Gantt chart with those additional columns added. For example:

Estimated duration Actual duration Estimated work Actual work Estimated budget Actual budget
3 days 3 days 5 person-days 10 person-days 1,115 2,230


2. What’s one thing we did well on this project that we should do again?

Never mind 20 or 30 recommendations – just pick one thing. For example, it could be a technique, app or tool; a meeting; a piece of information that made a difference; or something you did or an action you took that contributed in a big way to the project’s success (assuming it was a success – but, even if it wasn’t, there may still be things you did well).

And then – here’s the important bit – tell all your friends, colleagues, peers and fellow project managers. Shout it out to the world!

3. What’s one thing we did on this project that we should never do again?

All of the comments made in the previous section apply. What’s one thing that, if you could rewind the clock, you would do differently? What’s one thing that caused problems and wasted time? Had you known about this thing, you could have gone a different route or done something about it.

And, once again, tell all your friends, colleagues, peers and fellow project managers. This is much harder to do because it involves washing your dirty laundry in public, as you’re saying “We screwed up.” However, if you do this, it might well stop other people from falling into the same trap.

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If everybody did step 2 at the end of every project, we might see a series of little improvements. Each one might not be immensely significant, but the sum of them could be very significant indeed.

Similarly, if everybody did step 3 at the end of every project, we might see a series of bad practices gradually being removed from the organization and, again, the sum of these could be very significant indeed.

It’s project management improvement from the ground up. No management buy-in or big process improvement project or budget or hoo-ha required. Just us project managers making life easier for ourselves and our colleagues and – ultimately – for the organization for which we work.

In his foreword to Fighting on Guadalcanal, General Marshall wrote, “Soldiers and officers alike should read these notes and seek to apply their lessons. We must cash in on the experience which these and other brave men have paid for in blood.”

Happily, most of us don’t have to pay in blood, but the sentiment still applies.

[1] US Marine Corps, Fighting on Guadalcanal (1991), accessed 10 July 2018,