_running good debriefs

A guide to getting more out of issue postmortems

It's important to constantly evolve a magazine. Regular team meetings to look over past issues are an excellent way of doing this. Here some of my suggestions for making them work.

 

DEBRIEFS
Several opportunities here - managers should assess the type of people involved.

• If teams are too quick to shout down their competition, then split the team into two groups. One group pretends they
come from a rival mag and the other group represents the title being post-mortemed. Put the Editor into the rival
group. Get them to pull out strengths and weaknesses of each title. This forces teams to think about the strengths of
their rivals, rather than knocking everything. It forces a different perspective.

• If teams are quiet and don't offer any opinion then get them to come to the postmortem with 3 or 5 points that can be
learned from any other magazine (or any other mag in your market). Depending on characters involved, you can
either get people to talk about what they've picked and why, or you can get them to submit ideas anonymously and then
each idea can be debated.

• Concentrate on the positives. Talk about what's good and how things can be better. Everyone feels very attached to
their own magazine (or should do) - you need to get people to be critical but without feeling sensitive - which is why
it can help if you get people to pretend they're from their nearest rival cos they can criticise, knowing they are
looking at it from a different angle.

• Another amusing way to run a PM is to split the mag team into two groups (and combine each group with other
Editors and writers from other mags). Run the PMs separately and see what common conclusions are drawn from each
group. This is a great one if you're running PMs with lots of outside people. I'd especially recommend it for launches.

• Start the postmortem by isolating just a few sections you want to improve - don't cover the whole mag otherwise
the sections towards the end don't get the time/input they deserve.

• I'd also suggest that managers hold the meeting in the afternoon (people are livelier). Even better, if you think
it's going to be confrontational (or quiet), do it down the pub over some beers.

• Finally, NEVER NEVER NEVER undermine anyone's self-confidence in a PM situation. Motivate them, make them feel
keen. Empower them. If ideas are shit, try and draw out the positives from the idea, not the negatives. eg. "What I like
about that idea is... but how can we tailor it to suit our audience of..."

 

SEARCHING FOR WAYS TO IMPROVE
• Teams need to think really really clearly about who the reader is and what he wants from this magazine. Sometimes
teams can get wrapped up in thinking about what their competition are doing and replicating those ideas - but is it
really meeting the needs of your reader?

• Most important of all, get teams to talk to their readers. Set them the task of going out and talking to their potential
readers (go online, or better still, go to a shop which sells the products you're writing about and talk to the people
there). Split a team into three or four groups, get them to go out and record their conversations with potential
readers, then get them to come back and replay the conversations they had. At the end, draw conclusions. This is
hugely useful and can yield an amazing amount of info - some of it quite basic but which we often overlook. We always
talk to existing readers to get their opinions but it's the people who aren't reading our mags who can yield the most
useful info.

• Obvious ones - get each team member to pick 5 great things in other mags. Invite other editors (but not too many
otherwise they'll pull the meeting in the wrong direction). Run informal focus groups.

• Set aside a whole day for an 'improvement session'. Have an agenda. Get teams out of the office.

• Another good one - split a magazine team into three groups. Nominate an Editor and Art Editor within each group.
Set each group the task of devising a launch which will be in competition with your own home title. Get them to go
away and work out a USP, a flatplan and a cover then come back and present their launch. This is good because teams
don't have to be critical of their own work and it forces them to think about the weaknesses of their own title. You'd be
amazed at the number of really good ideas which can come out of these meetings. Also, it's really helpful in finding
new potential editors 'cos you get the chance to put those people in charge and see what sort of ideas they come up
with. I did this once and a guy I thought would make a good editor came back with no understanding of his market at
all.

• A nasty one, this - move the Editor to another mag. New editors have new visions. They're inspired and keen to
prove themselves.

 

MAKING IT HAPPEN
• Easy one. Everyone needs to buy into the changes, changes need to be bullet-pointed and the Editor or Prod Ed need to
see it through. However, if editorial don't agree with changes proposed by their publisher then these changes will
never be enacted - in which case, the publisher needs to understand why the changes aren't being accepted. Find
common ground. Make sure everyone is clear that a mag exists to make money. Give people ownership of their ideas.
Empower them. Make them feel motivated.

• Bullet-pointed changes must be discussed in the next PM. If things have changed, it's important that the manager
acknowledges the change and congratulates whoever made it happen.

-MARK HIGHAM