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Postmortem: how Google learn from failure

How can you learn from failure? Recently, Google described its internal process for documenting and learning from mistakes, and this process is rightly called “the postmortem“.

For many, the act of failing or committing a major mistake is enough to send them spiraling down into a pit called “feeling inadequate“. But a failure can be something to benefit from. Instead of asking “what if,” treat the event as a learning experience.

In the article linked above, the team at re:Work  says:

It’s not about pointing fingers at any given person or team, but about using what we’ve learned to build resilience and prepare for future issues that may arise along the way. By discussing our failures in public and working together to investigate their root causes, everyone gets the opportunity to learn from each incident and to be involved with any next steps. Documentation of this process provides our team and future teams with a lasting resource that they can turn to whenever necessary.


Postmortem philosophy

The goals of writing a postmortem are to ensure that the incident is documented, that all causes are well understood and, above all, that countermeasures are put in place to reduce the likelihood or impact of recidivism. Postmortems are expected after any significant undesirable event. Writing a postmortem is not punishment — it is a learning opportunity for the entire company. Here two on the main point of postmortem culture:

  • Encouraging blameless and constructive feedback. Removing blame from a postmortem can enable team members to feel greater psychological safety to escalate issues without fear. Blameless postmortems can be challenging to write because the postmortem format clearly identifies the actions that led to the incident, but an atmosphere of blame risks creating a culture in which incidents and issues are swept under the rug, leading to greater risk for the organization.
  • No postmortem left unreviewed. An unreviewed postmortem might as well never have existed. Regularly recognizing postmortems with your team and with senior management can additionally increase the support and effectiveness of the solutions you develop in response. Google recommends scheduling a 30- to 60-minute meeting with the team to explore the incident. Most likely, additional reflection and documentation will be necessary. Take your time to learn now and save time in the future.


Can you learn from failure?

Organizations everywhere — tech and non-tech — can benefit from postmortems as a critical analysis tool after any event, crisis, or launch. Postmortem’s influence extends beyond that of any document and singular team, and into the organization’s culture itself.

Introducing a postmortem culture to your organization requires continuous cultivation and reinforcement. To reinforce a collaborative postmortem culture, senior managers actively participate in the review and collaboration process. Management can encourage this culture, but blameless postmortems are ideally the product of engineer self-motivation.

If you’d like to start your own postmortem culture, Etsy has released Morgue, a tool for managing postmortems.

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