The Postmortem

by Site Author

I once spent two months volunteering on an ambulance in Israel. Most days were boring. We would rush, lights flashing and siren on, to someone’s house, only to find a relatively healthy patient who could hop into the ambulance on their own.

Still, some days were interesting. There were heart attacks, and dying people, and terrible injuries. The most frightening day started with a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. I was on an ambulance team that rushed to the scene. A terrorist had detonated his explosives while inside a crowded city bus. About a half-dozen people died and many more were terribly wounded.

I remember the chaos of the scene. There was broken glass everywhere, and also scattered, severed body parts. A naked foot, unshod, was lying beside the bus. Our work on the bus passed quickly. Within minutes, all of the injured were on their way to the hospital.

A couple hours after the bombing, all ambulance crews convened for a postmortem meeting. Everyone who had been at the scene was in the room: the drivers, paramedics, and volunteers.

The postmortem meeting had its own protocol. Every driver stood up and described their experience. They were careful to mention any problems they had along the way. And once everyone had described their experience, the staff went through a list of problems.

A challenge in such situations is to park the ambulances near the bus so that the ambulances don’t get in each other’s way. Another problem involved the media. Many drivers complained that journalists were making it harder for the ambulances to get to the scene. Then there were some personnel issues, conflicts within the ambulance crews.

The person running the meeting took careful notes, and then everyone discussed how to do a better job next time. This was Jerusalem during the Intifada; everyone hoped there wouldn’t be a next time, but there was.

A lesser organization wouldn’t have had that meeting. But the ambulance drivers I worked with saw the meeting as just part of their jobs. And today, many management experts see the postmortem as a critical practice in effective organizations.

Such meetings are especially common in Israel. Consider, for instance, this description from the book Startup Nation:

In Israel’s elite military units, each day is an experiment. And each day ends with a grueling session whereby everyone in the unit—of all ranks—sits down to deconstruct the day, no matter what else is happening on the battlefield or around the world. “The debrief is as important as the drill or live battle.”

The authors of that book, Dan Senior and Saul Singer, argue that these postmortem meetings are a hallmark of Israeli organizations and a key to the country’s success.

I thought of this when listening to an interview with Stephen Colbert, a late-night television personality. After every show, his staff has a postmortem meeting in which they discuss the show: what went right and what went wrong.

And the idea also applies to individuals working on their own. Many performers sit down and take notes after each performance. In graduate school, a senior professor mentioned how, after every single lecture she gives, she jots down how she could do better. For professionals, in other words, improving is just a part of the process.