Avoid the Surprise. Run a Premortem.

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Can you predict the future? If you said yes, you’re delusional. If you said no, this article might help you manage the related risks and opportunities of a complex future project.

Sadly, clairvoyance isn’t a real thing, although that skill would come in handy on big projects. If you’ve ever been involved in a large team effort, you’ve probably pulled together a detailed plan and made huge assumptions and hoped for the best. Each subject matter expert involved provides their specific inputs, you draft a broad agreement on scope and contract terms, and you move forward. Often, no one stops to identify potential risks, nor do they think about possible contingencies to mitigate those pitfalls. Reflection and learning occur only AFTER the project is complete. Usually this is in the form of a retrospective meeting or post-launch analysis, information that benefits you in future projects.

But what if instead of making assumptions and plowing ahead, we take the time to properly define risks and opportunities BEFORE the project kicks off? What if we gave every member of the team a voice to share their worries and/or excitement before turning them loose on a task?

That’s where a premortem comes in.

What’s a premortem?

According to Harvard Business Review, “a premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death.” A premortem, on the other hand, gives you and your extended team an opportunity to evaluate risks, define success and uncover potential pitfalls before project “death” occurs.

Why run a premortem?

With a premortem, you and your team discuss risks and rewards before beginning the project or client engagement. We’re not expecting clairvoyance, just thoughtful discussion across multiple disciplines about what might happen over the course of a project and how we might react to it. Each project team member has past experiences that may inform this effort. This exercise allows you to tap into that knowledge.

How do you run a premortem?

There are many different methods for conducting a premortem. What follows is the process I’ve used in the past, adapted from different sources. I’ve found that it’s led to “aha” moments and better proactive planning.

Set-up (8-10 minutes): Create a baseline understanding among all premortem participants before beginning the interactive exercises. As a moderator, your goal is to provide a clear understanding about what the project goals are, what role the agency/team plays in achieving that goal, the fundamentals of the project logistics (e.g., what are we building, budget/timing constraints) and anything else pertinent to get the team in the right mindset before diving into the exercises. It’s impossible to cover everything, and you don’t want to overwhelm people before they even start, so keep the set-up focused and under 8-10 minutes.

Depending on the size of the group, you can either separate people into two groups or, if a smaller team, keep everyone together and run the next step twice. Try to separate the teams so that there is a good cross-section of disciplines in each group. Otherwise, when you get to the planning exercise, a lopsided discipline group is going to only think about solutions to their common roadblocks.

Also, it’s important to time-box each of these premortem steps. You may decide to extend the timing a bit based on the size of your group but be sure to communicate how long you intend to spend on a section and keep the process moving.

Good & Bad (10 minutes): Once you’ve provided a proper set-up and explained the purpose of this effort, instruct everyone to think about a specific time in the future: a year from now is a common timeframe.

For 10 minutes, each member of team A thinks about that future date and silently generates hypothetical situations as to why a project might fail spectacularly. For team B, it’s the opposite – why a project might succeed beyond expectations. Have everyone individually write down their thoughts, rapid-fire, on post-its. Don’t over-think it, just write down thoughts on why your scenario could come true.

Atlassian’s version of the premortem explains this step very well. They call it “glass half-full, glass half-empty.” Regardless of what you call it or how you specifically run the exercise, what’s most important is that you are generating scenarios as a team that identify hidden risks or rewards.

Review and Group (8-10 minutes): Once the clock stops, have each member of one team talk through their post-its (positive or negative) and organize them into themes on a blank wall. Tell participants not to self-edit; post each potential idea even if it’s only half-finished (it may lead to interesting conversation later). After everyone from Team A has gone, Team B does the same exercise. Separate the good from the bad into different sections of the wall. Don’t dive into analysis yet, just get all the ideas on the wall first.

Now that everyone has shared their thoughts, give each team a few minutes to revisit their section of the wall and try to group them into overarching themes. Don’t get rid of outliers, just place them to the side. Once you have the themes in place, try to summarize them into one or two sentence situations (e.g., post-its that list “Attrition issues” and “Knowledge loss” could merge into “Staffing levels are inconsistent and may jeopardize the credibility of our core team”).

Poke Holes (5 -8 minutes): Once everyone has grouped their collective team’s thoughts, spend 5-8 minutes collectively poking holes and asking questions. Start with team A’s themes and ideas and have team B ask tough, thought-provoking questions, like “What happened to cause that?” and “Why didn’t we see that coming?” Since these are hypothetical situations, Team A might not have all the specific answers to a question, but they should be able to explain what led them to believe that this opportunity or failure could happen.

Any member of Team A can answer but sometimes it helps to assign a team leader to act as the voice of the group.

Then switch the process and let Team B poke holes.

Vote (5 minutes): After everything has been captured and everyone has had a chance to talk about themes in detail, each team member is now given a certain number of “votes” that they can assign to specific themes (or issues if they are big enough). Votes can be used on either side of the wall, good or bad, so people in Team A can vote for themes from Team B (and vice versa).

End and Next Steps (5-10 minutes): As a moderator, tally up the votes and read off the opportunities and threats with the highest vote total. Check if there are any final questions before moving on.

You’ll want to summarize the findings and place them in a shared location where anyone on the team can access them. Additionally, for each highly rated item, you’ll want to assign an owner or team of owners to further investigate, build an action plan or champion following the premortem. Depending on the project, team structure and resources associated with this project, the depth of involvement in pursuing these findings may vary. What is most important is that these items are widely known within the project team and that critical items are being tended by specific individuals.

The next time you kick off a big project, give a premortem exercise a try. Regardless of how you conduct it, the key is to allow open communication throughout the exercise. Even if no major aha moments occur, you’ll have given everyone a voice and a view of the future potential of your project.

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