How To Conduct an Effective Premortem Exercise (Plus Tips)

6 steps to conducting a premortem
  1. Create a project plan. Before imagining what went wrong, you first need a general sense of what’s going to happen. …
  2. Invite relevant stakeholders. …
  3. Brainstorm potential project failures. …
  4. Share risks. …
  5. Identify risks with high likelihood or severity. …
  6. Review and revise project plan.

There’s always room for improvement. Whether you’re raising your glasses in celebration of a marketing campaign that was a success or you’re two days into an Agile sprint that isn’t meeting its objectives, a retrospective (a k. a. postmortem) can save the day. The premortem is a retrospective that is conducted while there is still plenty of time to change the course, allowing the team to come together, reflect on what could have gone better, and make plans to do it better next time.

The idea is nothing new. Whether you’re a Scrum Master or a project management expert, you’ve probably carried out a similar Risk Assessment before the term “premortem” gained popularity in September 2007 from Harvard Business Review. The difference is that it’s performed in a round table setting, so why the sudden buzz? The project manager typically conducts a risk assessment by asking each team member directly about their biggest concerns and then weighing those concerns according to their best judgment. That’s a lot of responsibility for one person. In contrast, a premortem brings everyone on the team together to use their collective knowledge from all roles, pinpoint the greatest risks, and develop workable backup plans for anything that might go wrong. The best part is that managers get buy-in by distributing responsibility among the team, preventing that snarky engineer from saying “I told you this would happen” whenever a problem arises.

We’ve tried just about every method imaginable after years of conducting premortems for clients ranging from small startups to significant non-profits and Fortune 100 companies. Our conclusions are straightforward: any team can conduct a world-class premortem as long as they stay clear of a few common mistakes. Here are five quick suggestions to help you steer clear of them and conduct the ideal premortem with your team.

Despite the openness of our team relationships, there is still a social stigma against complete honesty. This is much more than merely reprimanding a coworker for wearing orange. Perhaps someone dropped the ball last time and it wouldn’t be appropriate for the team to point it out during the retro. While polite society keeps these details hidden during a retrospective, it’s important to address that they could occur in the premortem. What about that contractor who almost quit and you’re the only one who knows—why bother telling the rest of the team how close the project came to collapsing? Treating the project as though it had already failed is the secret to achieving breakthrough honesty among your team.

Speaking in the past tense, especially when referring to an event that hasn’t actually occurred, removes the negative connotation from the assertion. Imagine, for instance, that a team member takes a parental leave (we know because we’ve done it!) It’s simple to bring up that matter during the premortem: “We failed because we didn’t take Jordan’s parental leave into account.” Finding the courage to say that straightforward statement during the retrospective is much more challenging, and the issue might end up being the elephant in the room. Premortems give everyone a pass before the project starts so that risks can be identified more accurately, allowing for better forecasting and more time to put emergency plans in place. Asking the proper question is crucial because the only issue is drawing out as many risks as possible.

It’s crucial to create an environment where coworkers can be honest with one another. There are a few ways to promote honesty if you’re the team leader: start the meeting by stating that it’s okay to be honest, even if it feels pessimistic; during the premortem, set an example by sharing your own candid thoughts; and commend others when they exhibit radical candor to reinforce the type of participation you want to see.

The Pre-mortem Technique – The Trick To Avoiding Project Failure

What are the benefits of a premortem?

You may experience some of the following advantages if you conduct a premortem:

What is a premortem?

Before a project, team members meet to discuss risks that could cause it to fail. This exercise is known as a premortem. Sometimes the group acts as though the project has already failed and then goes backward to determine why. Premortems are typically led by managers to identify any potential risks, also known as roadblocks, and ways to avoid or mitigate them.

Premortems are typically attended by the entire team in order to obtain a variety of insightful viewpoints. Although managers typically oversee this process, any team member can conduct a premortem provided they are familiar with the project’s fundamentals, including the overall objective, general budget, timeline, and available resources.

Premortem vs. postmortem

Both premortems and postmortems are beneficial at various stages of the project. The timing of them makes the biggest difference. You conduct a premortem before you begin a project to identify risks, and you can conduct a postmortem once the project is complete to determine any changes or improvements that could have been made. To enhance your project processes, you might find it beneficial to conduct both a premortem and postmortem with your team.

How to do a premortem

The steps you can take to conduct a premortem are as follows:

1. Choose a visual medium

Premortems typically go well when your team is aware of the risks and the overall project. Consider using a whiteboard or wall with sticky notes as your medium if your team meets in person. A project management board or even a shared spreadsheet can be used by virtual teams so that everyone can contribute.

2. Outline the project basics

Give members a general overview of the project so they can prepare for the premortem Some items you could include are:

More information will enable your team to more accurately identify potential problems.

3. Give the team time to form ideas

Give your team at least an hour to come up with ways the project could go wrong once they have a good understanding of it. If your team is small, you could ask them to form groups and make a shared list, or they could work alone. Ask them to list all potential obstacles and the reasons why they might prevent the project from succeeding.

Encourage their creativity so you can investigate every aspect of the project. No thought is currently too small or incorrect because doing so might encourage others to think about taking on additional risks. To stay focused, make sure your team only considers risks at this point rather than potential solutions.

4. Write down all of the risks

So that you can add them to the whiteboard or other visual medium, ask your team to share their risks with you. One group or participant could present all of their ideas at once, or you could have several rounds of speakers, each presenting one idea. Try to group some of the ideas you have as you write them all down; this could be useful. For instance, you could group together all matters pertaining to budget.

5. Discuss the risks with the team

Ask team members to share their perspectives on the risks on your list and why they believe they could result in the project failing in an open discussion. You can ask follow-up inquiries to keep the conversation going and get more information during your discussion. Team members can now begin putting forward suggestions for how to get around obstacles. Update your whiteboard with any new information so that everyone can see it.

6. Create an action plan

Create action plans using the solutions to stop various failure scenarios. Describe the actions or steps your team likely needs to take, including who must carry them out and when. You could also take additional measures, like extending the deadline or increasing the budget in a particular area. When everyone agrees that the action plan is finished, the premortem can be concluded.

Tips for running a successful premortem

Here are some tips for making your premortem a success:


What is premortem questioning?

The premortem assumes that the “patient” has passed away and asks what went wrong, unlike a typical critiquing session where project team members are asked what could go wrong. The team members’ task is to come up with solid explanations for why the project will fail.

What is a project premortem and why do it?

Premortem is a project management technique that will assist you in being ready for any surprises. Make a plan before a project begins by considering what could go wrong or right.

What is premortem analysis?

Pre-Mortem analysis is a method for avoiding the need for a post-mortem on a complete project failure. The purpose is to identify vulnerabilities in the plan. In contrast to a post-mortem’s backward-looking process, a pre-mortem analysis takes a forward-looking approach.

What is premortem in psychology?

When someone is dying, there may occasionally be a period of confusion or withdrawal right before death. The utterance of final words and the affirmation or modification of wills and testaments are two examples of consequential matters where premortem clarity may be important.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *