Visualizing the Unexpected

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Project post mortems can be an excellent tool for learning from mistakes and implementing process and decision-making improvements.  However, many times, these meetings, if held at all, get off to a bad start.  Typically, they quickly deteriorate into emotional finger pointing sessions where more credence is given to opinion rather than facts.  Team members leave frustrated, and skeptical that the same mistakes won’t occur over and over again.   The Event Timeline tool allows teams to come together at the end of a project to collect and prioritize fact-based information that will serve a credible basis for the post mortem process.

What is the Tool? Event Timeline

The Event Timeline is a simple tool that allows teams to get a post mortem started on the right track, by helping them have a focused, fact-based discussion through the identification of the key planned and unplanned events that drove the performance (or typically the under performance) of a project.  The tool is initially constructed on large sheets of paper in a group work setting that allows all team members to contribute, edit and prioritize on identified issues.  The meeting to construct the project timeline should be conducted very shortly after the completion of the project, in order to ensure that key team members are available to participate, and still have access to project data.

While typically conducted at the end of a project, this tool (and the post mortem process) can be used in mid-project, if there is a need to evaluate and reset a project.

What are the Benefits of Event Timeline?

  • Supports fact-based analysis to avoid blame and finger pointing, and provide a credible base of information to conduct a post mortem review.
  • Quickly identifies the impact of unplanned events on a project outcome
  • Through voting, provides cross functional buy-in and focus for root cause analysis
  • Allows team to focus on high impact areas for improvement, and avoids “spray & pray” approach to problem resolution.

What Business Problems Do We Solve?

The Event Timeline is an effective tool to initiate the post mortem process.  It serves as the basis for incremental process improvement through project learning.

What are some considerations?

The process requires cross-functional participation and cooperation.  It not the place to grind axes, settle scores or play politics.  Many times multiple levels of management want to participate in the process – but it’s not a good idea.  The project manager needs to create an environment where the team’s focus is on discovering and learning how to make better decisions on the next project.  When there’s too many agendas in the room, or the discussion is not fact based the impact of this tool will be marginalized.

Event Timeline Case Study

A software development team has delivered software and firmware in support of the platform release.  However, they missed their schedule by 3 weeks.  As part of the post mortem process, the team constructs and event timeline, around an organizing theme:  What are the issues that caused us to defer features and slip the development schedule?

Steps for the Program Manager:

  1. Schedule a 90 minute meeting, where cross functional team members bring their project materials (notes, schedules, emails and reports) as resources for a fact-based exercise in constructing the event timeline.
  2. Prior to the cross functional meeting, create a timeline on large sheets of paper and populate the timeline with the planned events of the project – including Project Start and End dates, as well as major milestones.
  3. Identify a “theme” for the timeline (What are the issues that caused us to defer features and slip the development schedule?
  4. Facilitate the Event Timeline meeting (90 minutes, with the cross functional team)
    1. Mount the timeline on the wall – it needs to be large enough (and in a large enough space) where team members can gather around it.
    2. Provide team members with Post-it notes and pens
    3. Team members will create 1 unplanned event/post-it note, describing an unplanned event that supports the theme. Inputs will be supported by project facts (meeting minutes, notes, reports, etc)
    4. Facilitate discussion to ensure each team member understands the information on each Post-it note.
    5. Provide team members with Post-it “dots” for voting on the top drivers of the theme.
    6. Based on group vote, select the top 3-4 issues as the basis for conducting a root cause analysis.


Event Timeline