Technology operations is a fast-paced space, and incidents are inevitable. That’s why it’s increasingly important to learn and improve from failures. In this article, we delve into the significance of incident postmortems within modern site reliability engineering (SRE) practices, unraveling how they contribute to continuous improvement and enhanced operational resilience.

What is an incident postmortem?

An incident postmortem is not just a reflection on what went wrong but rather a strategic analysis aimed at understanding the intricacies of an incident. It involves dissecting failures to gain insights into why they occurred, how they impacted operations, and, most importantly, how to prevent them in the future. In the context of modern SRE practices, incident postmortems are a cornerstone for fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

How do I run an incident postmortem?

Running an effective incident postmortem involves systematic management and response. Here are the steps to running a productive incident postmortem:

  1. Identify the incident and its impact: Recognize the incident's scope and how it affected users or systems.
  2. Assemble a postmortem team: Gather individuals with diverse perspectives to ensure a comprehensive analysis.
  3. Gather relevant data: Use observability tools for granular data across the stack.
  4. Conduct a timeline analysis: Create a chronological sequence of events leading up to and during the incident.
  5. Identify contributing factors and root causes: Leveraging observability software to pinpoint underlying issues.
  6. Develop actionable insights: Turn analysis into actionable recommendations for future prevention.

How observability software shapes effective postmortem practices

The integration of observability software, such as New Relic, transforms the way organizations analyze, learn, and evolve from incidents through the following practices:

Data collection

From application performance metrics to system-level data, these tools leave no stone unturned. New Relic collects data on application behavior, infrastructure health, and user interactions. This comprehensive data collection ensures that every facet of an incident is scrutinized, providing the necessary depth for a thorough postmortem analysis.

Real-time analysis

One of the standout features of observability software is its ability to facilitate real-time analysis as an incident unfolds. New Relic uses dynamic dashboards and alerting mechanisms to empower teams to assess and comprehend the impact of an incident in real time. This capability is instrumental in allowing teams to make quick, data-driven decisions to mitigate the impact of ongoing incidents.

Historical context

Every incident leaves a digital footprint, and observability software captures historical data meticulously. Postmortem analyses often require a retrospective view to identify patterns, trends, and recurring issues. The New Relic historical data repository allows teams to delve into past incidents, offering context for understanding the evolution of systems, identifying chronic issues, and ultimately informing preventative measures for the future.

The combination of comprehensive data collection, real-time analysis, and historical context empowers organizations to conduct thorough, insightful postmortems that go beyond immediate issue resolution to foster continuous improvement in their technology operations.

Best practices for conducting an incident postmortem

Ensuring effective incident postmortems involves embracing key practices to foster a culture of learning, collaboration, and continuous improvement.

Create a blame-free culture

Encourage open discussions without assigning blame. The primary goal isn’t to assign blame to individuals but to dissect incidents objectively, understanding the contributing factors. Emphasize a focus on system improvements rather than individual culpability. This approach ensures that team members feel safe sharing their experiences and insights, creating an environment conducive to genuine learning.

Encourage open communication

With a blame-free culture, more participants will be willing to join the conversation. Encouraging team members to voice their perspectives, experiences, and observations during postmortem meetings enriches the collective understanding of incidents and provides multiple, unique viewpoints to solving the issue. Active participation ensures a holistic view of the incident, uncovering nuances that might be overlooked otherwise.

Document and share findings

Documenting incident postmortem findings is crucial for knowledge retention and dissemination. Observability software allows teams to document incident details, analyses, and resolutions. Sharing these findings with the broader team enhances collective knowledge, ensuring that everyone benefits from the lessons learned. Documentation also serves as a valuable resource for future incident response and prevention.

Integrate observability solutions

Integrating observability solutions like New Relic into postmortem practices involves using historical data and real-time insights to proactively identify and address potential issues before they escalate. By understanding system behavior, teams can implement preventive measures, reducing the likelihood of similar incidents in the future.

Implement follow-up mechanisms

Deriving actionable insights from postmortems is vital, but equally important is tracking the progress of action items derived from these analyses. New Relic assists teams in implementing follow-up mechanisms by providing tools to set, monitor, and update action items. This ensures that identified improvements are systematically addressed and that the organization evolves based on the lessons learned.

Strategic instrumentation

Instrumentation, or the strategic placement of monitoring tools and data collection points, is pivotal in postmortem processes. Instrumentation capabilities allow teams to capture granular data during incidents, enabling in-depth analyses. Properly instrumented systems provide the necessary visibility to understand the root causes of incidents, contributing to more accurate postmortem assessments.

Challenges and pitfalls in conducting effective incident postmortems

Several challenges can impede the effectiveness of an incident postmortem. Understanding incident response myths from facts and addressing challenges is essential for conducting productive postmortem discussions.

Blame shifting

When incidents occur, there may be a natural inclination to assign blame rather than focusing on understanding the systemic issues. This not only hampers a blame-free culture but also inhibits open communication. To overcome blame-shifting, it's important to emphasize a collective responsibility for system reliability. This shift in mindset encourages teams to view incidents as opportunities for improvement rather than occasions for assigning fault.

Lack of participation

Incident postmortems are a group activity—the more, the merrier—as lack of participation can hinder the depth and breadth of insights gained. This challenge may stem from a variety of factors, such as fear of blame or a perception that the process is time-consuming. Strategies to overcome this challenge include fostering a safe and inclusive environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their perspectives. Additionally, clearly communicating the value of postmortems in driving continuous improvement can motivate increased participation.

Feeling psychologically unsafe

When team members feel psychologically unsafe, they are more likely to keep their candid insights to themselves over fear of retribution. Building psychological safety involves cultivating an environment where mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn rather than reasons for punishment. Leaders play a crucial role in fostering this safety by leading by example, acknowledging their own mistakes, and reinforcing a culture that values transparency and learning.


The essence of incident postmortems lies in fostering a culture of continuous improvement. Organizations that wholeheartedly embrace this ethos recognize that every incident, regardless of its magnitude, holds within it the potential for refinement and growth. Postmortems enable teams to adapt, evolve, and fortify their systems against future challenges.

For organizations aspiring to implement modern SRE practices, New Relic is an ideal solution, featuring a comprehensive suite of tools and DevOps monitoring designed to seamlessly integrate into the incident postmortem process. New Relic's commitment to empowering organizations with real-time data collection, analysis, and historical context aligns perfectly with the needs of SRE teams.

By leveraging New Relic observability solutions, teams can not only conduct effective postmortems but also proactively identify and address potential issues before they impact users.