How to Run a Successful Event Postmortem Meeting
You’ve just pulled off a productive conference. But as successful as it was, there’s likely still room for improvement. Learn how the American Library Association redesigned its all-staff postmortem meetings to boost morale and help the team focus on ways to improve future events.
In 2019, Earla Jones, MS, CMP, director of conference services and operations at the American Library Association, realized ALA needed to change the format of the internal postmortem meetings it held following annual events.
Typically, these postconference debriefs were all-staff meetings where everyone gave feedback to the meetings team. But Jones found that this format was neither useful for making meaningful improvements to ALA’s next meeting nor good for her team’s morale.
“The feedback could be very critical and very public. We wanted a better way to ask for staff feedback and a better way to structure the questions to get at what we really wanted to know—how to improve for the next meeting,” Jones said. “We decided to create a staff survey and refocus the questions and then meet as a small team to review the feedback.”
Here are some of the strategies Jones and her team have used to create effective postmortem meetings:
Keep the Feedback Coming
For an effective debrief, associations should gather as much event feedback as possible. In addition to staff, ALA sends conference surveys to exhibitors, speakers, and attendees. For its smaller annual event, ALA also holds a focus group of attendees and nonattendees to share ways to improve for next year.
“Present people with different avenues to provide feedback,” Jones said. “You may get different responses to the same question, from the same person, depending on if they tell it in person or write an anonymous response. You want to meet people where they are.”
Determine Action Items
You likely have a lot of data to sift through after a conference. According to Jones, looking at recurring themes or issues from the surveys can be a good starting point. These responses may not only highlight major areas of concern but also help staff consider new strategies moving forward.
In addition, designing your evaluation questions around potential action items can help guide your team through a postmortem meeting.
“We ask attendees to estimate the hours they spent participating in educational events, the exhibit hall, and informal networking,” Jones said. “If we find that people spent only a few hours networking, and we know networking is a value, that’s something we can review at the debrief. We can discuss if there were enough networking opportunities, and if not, how we can include more for next year.”
Turn Negative Comments Into Constructive Criticism
According to Jones, the old postmortem meeting format led staff to focus more on problem areas, rather than presenting solutions. To tackle that issue, ALA populated its postconference staff survey with questions designed to get colleagues thinking about ways to improve next year’s event, rather than dwell on what went wrong.
The questions touch on what worked well, what questions staff received from attendees, what compliments they received from attendees, and what feedback they received from attendees that could help ALA improve the event. By starting with what went well, staff can reflect on positive aspects of the conference and ideally approach the rest of the survey with a good mindset.
Jones recommends other associations take a similar approach with their postmortems.
“The event is a direct reflection of your team’s work, so you need to approach the postmortem meeting thoughtfully,” she said. “Start with the good news and take care when discussing areas of concern identified by survey respondents. End the conversation with opportunities to grow and enhance the next event.”