Giving constructive criticism is relatively straightforward when its one on one, but what do you do when you need to give it to a group? How can you run an effective post-mortem that corrects problems while not reducing the discussion to finger pointing and injured egos?
Think Investigation, Not Witch Hunt
The first thing you need to keep in mind when you call for a post-mortem is that you want your team intact when it’s all done. This means no finger pointing, no blame casting, and no personal comments. People do need to be held accountable, of course—but that can wait for a more private venue. Right now, your goal is team improvements, not individual critiques.
Make sure your team knows the rules, too. If you’re not allowed to point fingers, then neither are they. Speak clinically about what went wrong, and address the events rather than the person behind them. For example, “The client was unhappy because there were too many bugs in the system,” may be better than, “Josh screwed up on QA.”
Get Them to Participate
You’re not going to get good results if you just stand there and scold them. They’re going to resent you and dig in against any changes you try to make.
Instead, invite discussion and calmly ask them where they think the project went wrong. Make it come from them. Once they put forward reasons for the project’s failures, get them to come up with solutions as well. This is constructive criticism that they’re doing, and you shouldn’t neglect the need for self-improvement.
To discourage finger pointing, ask each team member about his own role before asking for group assessments. Keep the discussion focused on the tasks and the project. Clamp down on personal attacks and keep things from devolving into a shouting match.
Keep Looking Forward
The most calming question any post-mortem facilitator can ask is “how can we prevent this moving forward?” This question does three things. First, it tells the team that you’re focusing on the problem, and not the people. Second, it tells them that there is a tomorrow, and that nobody is (probably) going to get sacked. Third, it gets people thinking about possible solutions to the problem. This can be made through improving either the process or personal performance.
Don’t forget to acknowledge excellence during the post-mortem process. Rewarding good performance can sometimes be way more effective than an hour’s worth of constructive criticism.