Progress often accompanies unforeseen challenges and mishaps in organizations. Traditionally, these setbacks resulted in pointing fingers, hindering progress, and creating a negative work atmosphere. However, a "Blameless Postmortems" approach transforms how organizations respond to failure.

In this blog, we will delve into the importance of cultivating a blameless postrmortem culture when faced with setbacks. When teams avoid blaming each other, they can better overcome challenges and create a supportive environment that encourages creativity and new ideas.

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What is a Blameless Postmortem?

A postmortem is a document created after an incident to help teams understand why it happened and brainstorm ways to prevent similar incidents.

In blameless postmortems, the focus is on learning and improving without pointing fingers at individuals or teams. These postmortems may go by various names, such as incident retrospective, post-incident review, or post-action review, and they may involve a root cause analysis (RCA) exercise.

The goal of blameless culture is to foster a culture of understanding and growth, enabling teams to enhance their processes and responses to incidents continuously.

Steps to embrace Postmortems

The Role of Blameless Postmortems in Incident Management

SREs work on complex systems that are constantly changing. New features can sometimes cause problems; when that happens, SREs find and fix the issues so everything returns to normal.

But unless there's a plan to learn from these incidents, the same problems may happen again and again.

A blameless post mortem is a chance for everyone to understand what went wrong and how to stop it from happening in the future. This way, no one is afraid to help fix the problem.

After an incident is resolved, it's written down, and steps are taken to prevent it from happening again. The improvement plan is reviewed and followed up to ensure it gets done. This process helps the team grow and make things better.

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Best Practices for Conducting Blameless Postmortems

Here are some best practices to help you conduct blameless postmortem culture in your organization:

Blameless Approach for Constructive Postmortems

Blameless postmortems may seem tricky to create as they highlight actions that caused incidents. However, removing blame is essential to empower people to escalate issues without fear.

Avoid stigmatizing individuals or teams for frequent postmortems, as blame can lead to a culture of hiding incidents, increasing organizational risks.

Communication and Knowledge Sharing Are Essential

Real-time Collaboration: The ability to work together simultaneously facilitates swift data collection and idea generation, especially in the initial stages of the postmortem.

Open Commenting/Annotation System: Encourage crowdsourced solutions through comments and annotations, effectively broadening the analysis's coverage.

Email Notifications: Email notifications can be directed to collaborators within the document, keeping everyone in the loop and facilitating seamless input from all involved parties.

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Formal Review

After writing a postmortem, the process continues with a formal review and publication. The first draft is shared internally, and a group of experienced engineers examines it to ensure completeness.

They assess various aspects, including:

Incident Data: Ensuring all essential incident data is collected and documented for future reference.

Impact Assessments: Verifying that the impact of the incident is thoroughly assessed and understood.

Root Cause Analysis: Confirming that the investigation delves deeply enough to identify the incident's root cause.

Action Plan: Evaluating the appropriateness of the proposed action plan and the priority of bug fixes resulting from the incident.

Stakeholder Communication: Checking if the postmortem outcome has been communicated to relevant stakeholders.

Once the initial review is done, the postmortem is shared more widely, typically with the larger engineering team or via an internal mailing list.

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Prioritize Postmortem Reviews

Leaving a postmortem unreviewed is like missing out on valuable lessons. To prevent this, establish regular review sessions for all postmortems.

During these meetings, ensure that ongoing discussions and comments are addressed, ideas are captured, and the final version is solidified.

Once everyone involved is satisfied with the document and its action items, the postmortem is archived in a team or organization repository of past incidents. Transparent sharing of post mortems makes them easily accessible for others to learn from.

Learn more about Blameless Postmortem:

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Overcoming Challenges

One of the main challenges of bringing postmortems to an organization is that some people may need clarification on their usefulness due to the time and effort required to prepare them.

To overcome this, consider the following strategies:

  • Introduce postmortems gradually into the workflow. Start with a trial period where you conduct a few complete and successful postmortems. This will demonstrate their worth and help identify when to initiate a postmortem.
  • Promote the value of writing effective postmortems and celebrate it openly. Recognize this practice through social recognition and individual/team performance management.
  • Encourage senior leaders to acknowledge and participate in postmortems.

Now we have an idea how blameless postmortems work. Let's understand the steps required for implementing this culture in an organization.

Implementing Blameless Postmortems in Your Organization

Creating a blameless culture starts with how we talk about things and our attitude.

To bring a blameless postmortem culture to life in your organization, consider these simple steps:

  • Embrace "What" Questions: Instead of asking "who" questions that point fingers, focus on "what" questions like, "What was your understanding of the situation?" and "What did you do next?". These help analyze incidents without blame.
  • Emphasize "How" Questions: Encourage "how" questions to understand the conditions that led to an event. They clarify technical details and distance actions from individuals, reducing blame.
  • Avoid "Why" Questions: Avoid using "why" questions that lead to justification and blame. Instead, concentrate on understanding systemic factors.
  • Apply Crucial Accountability Framework: Utilize the blameless postmortem framework to approach difficult conversations about unmet expectations.
  • Tell the Rest of the Story: Move beyond blame by considering the roles played by various individuals and systemic factors in the incident.
  • Restore Purpose and Respect: If someone becomes defensive during a postmortem, remind them that the goal is to understand systemic factors and collaboratively identify actions to prevent future failures.
  • Make responses less specific: Shift the focus away from individual motivation to encourage open contributions and suggestions from all team members.
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Tools and Technologies to Support Blameless Postmortems

You can write down postmortems and incident reports using simple tools like Confluence, Google Drive, or Git.

Apart from above tools, you can also use Zenduty's built-in postmortem feature, which helps you keep track of the incident timeline and manage tasks after the incident, like creating, assigning, and monitoring action items.

These tools offer a more straightforward way to learn from incidents and make essential improvements in a well-structured manner.

Essential Resources:

If you are struggling to write the right incident postmortem, checkout this blog to get started:

How to Write Effective Incident Postmortems | Zenduty
Learn effective incident postmortem writing for improved incident response and system reliability. Follow best practices and enhance incident management.
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What are the limitations of a blameless postmortem?

Blameless approach significantly contributes to cultivating a culture of continuous improvement, it is essential to acknowledge some potential drawbacks:

  • Reduced accountability: Holding people or teams accountable for their actions becomes difficult when blame is avoided, which may result in a lack of ownership and commitment to implementing improvements.
  • Identifying root causes becomes difficult: Blaming specific individuals or teams for problems might seem more straightforward to figure out the root causes. However, this approach can hinder the implementation of practical solutions.
  • Failure to address interpersonal conflicts: Conducting a postmortem may not adequately address interpersonal conflicts or negative behaviors that adversely affect team dynamics and productivity.

How can you effectively conduct a blameless postmortem?

  • Embrace "What" Questions: Focus on "what" instead of "who" to analyze incidents without blame.
  • Emphasize "How" Questions: Understand conditions leading to events, distancing actions from individuals.
  • Avoid "Why" Questions: Shift focus to understanding systemic factors, not justifications.
  • Apply Crucial Accountability Framework: Handle difficult conversations with empathy.
  • Tell the Rest of the Story: Consider roles played by individuals and systems.
  • Restore Mutual Purpose and Respect: Encourage collaborative problem-solving.

Is a blameless postmortem analysis equivalent to root cause analysis?

The primary distinction between an RCA (Root Cause Analysis) and a Blameless Post Mortem lies in their respective approaches. While an RCA focuses on identifying the root cause, a Blameless Post Mortem goes beyond that, placing equal importance on avoiding potentially harmful judgments throughout the process.

How do blame aware and blameless approaches differ?

Blameless postmortems actively avoid blaming individuals, while blame-aware postmortems acknowledge blame as a human response and aim to take it constructively. Both approaches ultimately seek to promote a culture of continuous improvement and actionable outcomes to prevent similar incidents in the future.

What factors contribute to a successful postmortem analysis?

A successful post-mortem analysis includes the following:

  1. A thorough list of areas for improvement.

2. Accurate identification of the critical issues that hindered the project's progress.

3. In the case of a successful project, clear recognition of the factors contributing to success is essential.

4. Valuable insights that the organization can use to take meaningful actions.

5. Holding individuals accountable for action steps that lead to better results in future projects.

Anjali Udasi

As a technical writer, I love simplifying technical terms and write on latest technologies. Apart from that, I am interested in learning more about mental health and create awareness around it.