Premortem


Imagine all the reasons your project could turn into a miserable failure. Then figure out how you can prevent those problems now, while there's still time.

AND I NEED THIS... WHY?

You've reached the end of the project. It's been a treacherous ride, resulting in dismal failure. You're now one of "those" projects, doomed to the annals of corporate folk lore.

Or perhaps your project has nonchalantly slipped into dysfunction. You've ploughed straight past warning signs because you were super busy and couldn't be bothered to pay attention to them. Now you're wishing you had.

Wouldn't it be nice to go back in time and start again, knowing what you know now? Well, too bad. You can't. (Sorry...) But at least you know to do a pre-mortem next time.

In a pre-mortem, your team will travel to a hypothetical future in which your project has flat-lined, and imagine all the ways things went wrong. You'll also envision your project as a runaway success, and the reasons for it. Then you'll plot out steps to prevent the bad and bring about the good.

WHO SHOULD BE INVOLVED?

Bring your core project team for sure. Also consider inviting partner teams (legal, support, marketing, security, etc) to think past what's currently top-of-mind. You'll identify more flavors of risk and opportunity with diverse skills and experiences in the room.

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Use premortems to help your team see risks and opportunities.
People

6 - 12

Time

90 min

Difficulty

Moderate

Running the play

For one half of your brain, fill your glass to half empty, call your inner cynic, and make sure you've woken up on the wrong side of the bed – you're about to imagine your own tragic end.

For the other half of your brain, put on your rose tinted glasses, eternal optimism, and imagine joyous bright sunny days.

MATERIALS
  • Whiteboard or butcher's paper
  • Markers
  • Sticky notes or dots
  • Timer
  • Rubber chicken

 

PREP

Come to the premortem prepared

Prior to the session, challenge your team to step back from their day job and consider as many angles of risk as they can, so everyone is prepared to contribute. Ask your team to consider questions like:

  • What could slow us down or make us miss our deadline for launch?
  • What are we already nervous about?
  • Where did you discover blind spots on past projects?
  • How quickly can we respond when something goes wrong?
  • Who could own each of our biggest risk areas?

Also think about where you might be able to over-achieve. If the project turned out to be a ground-breaking success, what might that look like?

STEP 1

Set the stage (10 min)

Introduce the premortem exercise as a way to forecast impending doom, and find opportunities for success you hadn't considered before.

Let your imaginations run, but keep them on a (long) leash. Make sure people are clear on the scope of the project because that's the scope of your discussion for the next 90 minutes. If you have an elevator pitch, run through it as a way of refreshing everyone on your objectives and measures of success.

Now choose an actual date in the future. It could be a few days, weeks, or months past your launch date, depending on the size and length of the project.

STEP 2

Glass half full, glass half empty (20 min)

Divide people into two groups: failure team and success team.

Failure team

Brainstorm all the reasons your project could fail. Negative turns of events, warning signs you ignored, protraced decisions, assumptions that proved false. Write each catastrophic outcome on a sticky note, then take turns posting them on a whiteboard or wall. This isn't the time to be defensive or dismissive. All depths of doom and despair are encouraged.

Once everyone has shared their pieces of "prospective highsight", group similar ideas into themes.

 

Success team

Brainstorm all the ways your project could succeed. Did you exceed your goals by miles? Did you succeed in ways you hadn't expected to? Was getting this thing out the door 100% pain-free? Write all the things you're proud of, then take turns posting them on a whiteboard or wall.

Once everyone has shared their imaginary victories, group similar ideas into themes.

Pro tip

Close your eyes and picture your CEO holding a press conference. A pack of hungry journalists and irate customers are in front of your building. What does she say?

STEP 3

Cross examine (10 min)

Ask a member of each team to summarise the ideas and themes that emerged.

Now each team gets to challenge the other. Ask tough, thought-provoking questions like "What happened to cause that?" and "Why didn't we see that coming?" Push each other to deeper lows and higher highs so you can uncover more risks and opportunities.

Before moving on, step back and look at what you've captured so far. Any last-minute additions? Or angles you haven't considered?

STEP 4

Vote (10 min)

Narrow it down to the top three risks or opportunities for the project. Everyone has three votes and can use them as they please, you may vote on many ideas or put all three votes on one ulcer-inducing risk.

When voting, consider the likelihood of each outcome, whether positive or negative. Focus on outcomes you can actually influence. It's fine to consider risks that are outside of your control (e.g., giant meteor), but this session is about prevention, not response.

STEP 5

Make a plan (20 min)

Now let's do what we do best: solve some problems. 

Get back into your groups. The failure team will tackle top-voted risks, while the success team handles top-voted opportunities. Come up with plans for preventing the disasters and seizing the opportunities for success.

Err on the side of being granular and tactical. Vague umbrella statements like "we'll talk to each other regularly about blockers" aren't very helpful. Think through how that communication will happen – stand-ups? a dedicated chat room? other?

Pro tip

Mix it up so the failure team maps how to pursue major opportunities, and the success team figures out how to mitigate major risks.

STEP 6

Assign owners and revise the plan (15 min)

Agree on an owner for each top-voted risk and/or opportunity. They don't have to execute the plan on their own, but they're charged with making sure the plan isn't just shelf-ware.

Consider how the risks, opportunities, and plans you've just laid out effect the existing project plan. Warning: this can be reeeeeeally uncomfortable. An hour ago, you felt the project was going along just fine. And now you've probably uncovered at least one risk that shifts the project's current status to "off-track". Instead of becoming overwhelmed, congratulate yourself on detecting a few landmines before you step on them.

Anti-pattern

Ignoring inconvenient truths. Face them and get to work addressing them. Rest assured, bad news doesn't get better with time.

STEP 7

Capture and share (5 min)

You're clear on major risks and opportunities, and have tactical plans with clear owners.

Job done – almost.

Make sure you've got notes from the session and agree on how you will bring these into regular conversation. Will you review at stand-up once a week? Put it on a Confluence page and share with your stakeholders?

Anti-pattern

Venting with no action. Don't walk away feeling more confident, only to feel your ulcer growing again tomorrow. Start executing on those tactical plans right away.

Nailed it?

Be sure to run a full Health Monitor session or checkpoint with your team to see if you're improving.

Find your Health Monitor

Variations

DOUBLE DOWN ON RISKS

Focus only on risks and go deeper. Make a prevention plan for as many as 10 major risks.

Follow-ups

Make sure your plans are put into action. Raise JIRA issues to capture discrete tasks, set reminders on your calendar, ask what progress is being made at stand-ups, etc. 

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