make better decisions by conducting pre-mortems

Last week, I briefly mentioned “pre-mortems” — an exercise for foreseeing obstacles and making better decisions from the start. The idea is to imagine that it’s months down the road and the project has failed, and then work backwards to figure out why that happened. That way, you can adjust your planning ahead of time to avoid that happening.

People seemed interested in the concept, so I’ve written a whole post on how to conduct effective pre-mortems.

A pre-mortem is, as it sounds like, the opposite of a post-mortem. The idea is to imagine that it’s months down the road and the project has failed, and then work backwards to figure out why that happened. That way, you can adjust your planning now to avoid that happening.

This approach will get your team beyond the optimism that people often feel at the start of the project and invite them to think about how failure could occur, in a context that doesn’t make people feel like overly pessimistic naysayers. Plus, by directing inviting people to imagine why the project could fail, you’ll make it safe for people who might be nursing private doubts to speak up. It’s also often easier for people to voice dissent when it’s framed not as “I think X will go wrong,” but rather as, “If we’re looking for possible failure points, X could be one.”

To conduct an effective pre-mortem, follow these steps:

1. Assemble a group of everyone who be even remotely involved in the project. If you leave people out, you risk introducing blind spots that you won’t know about because the person who could have spotted them wasn’t included in this conversation.

2. Brief your group on the project – what you’re doing, why, how, and what outcomes you’re aiming for.

3. Now ask the group to imagine that the project is behind you, and that it’s failed.

4. Have each person take a few minutes to write down every reason they can think of for why the project failed. Make it clear that there are no limits to the possible failure points that are appropriate to mention here – it could be something logistical, like a new retail site not having enough parking, to something internal like lacking enough support for the project from senior management, or even something personal, like a key person on the project needing time off to care for a sick family member.

5. Have each person share their list with the group, while you or someone you designate takes notes on every point that’s raised.

6. Now you have a list of possible failure points to think through and figure out how you can guard against them or neutralize them entirely.

By anticipating challenges and avoiding overconfidence at the start of your planning, you can significantly increase your chances of having projects go successfully.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    Link doesn’t work, but I’m looking forward to this as formalized process improvement has become a pretty big part of my job recently.

    1. BRR*

      We should have held a pre-mortem on this :).

      Also did you choose the stock photo for this one? Maybe you can list which sites you choose the stock photo for and which the company does, I just find it very interesting after yesterday (maybe because I need a life).

  2. fposte*

    As someone who’s always looking for doom and failure points anyway, I am excited by this. It also sounds like a good way of channeling negative Nancys like me into a significant part of the process.

  3. little Cindy Lou who*

    Another use I can see in this is for developing checklists and redundancies as a person acting to deliver the project and reflecting on what could be your weak points in meeting the goal.

  4. TheExchequer*

    Huh, that *is* an interesting approach. Would you do it for every project or just key projects?

  5. Beezus*

    I love love love doing this, and it’s not a formal exercise in my organization for any areas except engineering FMEAs.

    If I were doing this formally, my next step would be to score each potential failure roughly on a probability scale, just by gut feel, 1-10. Then list the potential outcomes of each failure, and score those roughly on an impact level scale. Then talk through what it would take to minimize or eliminate the potential for failure, and score those opportunities by effort level. Then use those factors to help you target the right prevention measures, allocating your resources to preventing the most probable/worst impact/most preventable issues first.

    1. Chinook*

      “If I were doing this formally, my next step would be to score each potential failure roughly on a probability scale, just by gut feel, 1-10. Then list the potential outcomes of each failure, and score those roughly on an impact level scale. ”

      We actually do this in my industry (pipeline) – it is called risk management and impacts how we prioritize our work. We would love to fix everything we come across in our tool runs but we have limited budget and manpower (not that it is small or inflexible, just that it is not unlimited). For example, engineers create a matrix where they figure out what the odds of a dent of such and such a size covered by this much cover and in an area of limited seismic activity and they figure out the odds of their being a failure in 20 years or less (or must fix now baseline), 21-50 years (should fix this year.) or longer (monitor it and revisit next year). It is fascinating to look at how all sorts of factors can change your risk tolerance.

      1. Layla*

        I’ve done risk analysis in my projects – using an excel sheet – not tool – I think it puts me in a different frame of mind. Because u start with the risk & determine the impact/ mitigation actions
        Pre mortems ( refreshing idea to me !) are the other way round – imagining failure first

  6. KJR*

    Ya know, I could see this being a helpful thing to do in life in general! Wouldn’t that be interesting to tackle pre-marriage or baby??

  7. newb*

    Agreed; this seems super helpful in life, especially if (like me) somebody has those kind of amorphous dread/doom-type anxieties (e.g. “Of course it’s going to go wrong somehow and be the worst thing ever…”). Say you’re throwing a party, and the pre-mortem is: “Ok, the party went horribly wrong and everybody had a bad time. How did this come to pass?” Then, acting preventatively based on those hypothetical scenarios gives you a sense of control– and confidence. And it takes away that “I hate to be a doom-prophet, but…” awkwardness. I like it!

  8. Meg Murry*

    The other place this is really helpful in is planning project timelines. I feel like every time I’m presented with a Gannt chart, it has been written for the “if everything goes perfectly and there are no hiccups” timeline – so as soon as there is a tiny glitch, the whole project is either going to be late or everyone is going to have to put in crazy hours to catchup. After looking at “what could fail” and “how likely is it to fail” the next question should also be “and how long do we think it will take to recover from that failure”?

    1. AnonPi*

      That seems to be inherent with project management via PMI style – change/unforeseen circumstances aren’t addressed much if at all (its more of a ‘if it comes up we’ll deal with it then’ attitude IMHO). Which is why I’m interested in the agile approach where change is expected, and takes this approach of trying to anticipate what could go wrong in the planning process.

  9. Megan*

    I wish there was a job where you could JUST do this. I would love it, and it would be my dream job. I do something like this as a part of my personal checklist with projects at home and at work already and it ROCKS.

    My organization is too “rah rah” to ever think that anything could go wrong, and it would be perceived as too “negative” to try this as a department-wide or committee-wide thing.

  10. CV*

    How do you do this exercise without people blaming each other? I’m afraid an exercise like this would cause friction.

  11. dragonzflame*

    This is a great idea. There’s this blogger I follow, she has a sewing pattern business, and I’ve followed it from pretty close to the start. When she started up she did a business course and there was one exercise where they had her write down everything that could possibly go wrong in her first year of business – everything from illness to supplier problems to postal strikes – and what she would do if they happened.

    And pretty much every one of those problems did happen. It must have felt good knowing she’d anticipated them and had a plan to get round it!

  12. A Jane*

    Late to the game on this one, but a coworker presented the crawford slip technique as way to identify potential risks and pitfalls. Highly recommended if you’re looking at a collaborative and quick way to gather potential issues from a project team.

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