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Pre-mortems in practice

I have recently started to use an exercise from Gary Klein’s very good book The Power of Intuition. This exercise is called a Pre-mortem, if you have lead or participated in a Post-mortem or an AAR then you can easily grasp this idea.

Essentially you and your project participants imagine that many months have passed and that your project has catastrophically failed. You have to make it clear, things have gone badly, very badly. But you say we do not know why. Gary suggests using a mythical crystal ball – I have found that this whimsy helps people relax and works to lighten the mood. However you explain the scenario just be certain to tell them a story which puts the participants in a mind set which allows them to accept that they have failed. This allow their minds to begin searching the present patterns in the project to find the sources of this horrible failure.

You then proceed as if you were performing a post-mortem, except that everyone is using their imaginations and drawing upon their past experiences to tell a story about what could happen. A real key to success here is to force the participants to describe specific scenarios – draw out the details and you can really surface your likely key challenges. However if you allow for vague platitudes like “lack of management support” or “budget cuts” you will not maximize the potential of this exercise.

Instead strive to get colorful, yet plausible scenarios like “server hardware too small due to unforeseen data on Foo server” or “competing project XYZ stole key contributor Bob McCodes aLot”. Being specific forces the participants to focus on things that can really happen which you can probably do something about, whereas vague causes of failure generally can not be fixed.

This has fantastic results and really allows people to accept the possibility of failure without getting stuck in a blame game or analysis paralysis. I have found that this exercise can allow people to prepare for the possibility of failure much more effectively than merely generically reviewing plans for risks and arriving at luke warm mitigation.

Bonus points if you review this list with your project team at least once a month to keep the possibility of failure fresh in their minds and allow those minds to keep looking for early warning signs which will show up if you are on the wrong track.

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  1. Harsha Hegde
    September 28, 2008 at 3:06 am

    “Pre-mortem”, a very simple concept, but rarely thought of. The concept makes a very interesting read.

  2. Carl
    January 6, 2009 at 4:04 am

    Interesting concept… it aligns to the what PMI calls Risk Management however I think this would produce more valid results and especially more buy-in from the team. In your experience, how has this affected team and stakeholder motivation? Did you include internal and external stakeholders? Thanks

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