Starting at the end and how to prevent a postmortem by doing a pre-mortem.
I’ve been stuck in a project more than once. In search of a solution, I discovered the pre-mortem and would love to share the hands-on version. All in all, it’s fairly lightweight and can easily be done in under an hour…unless you enjoy lengthy discussions, in which case I’d say, crack open a bottle of wine and get set for an evening.
Jokes aside, imagine the following: Suddenly, you are knee deep in a project, stuck in the busy trap and wondering how you ever got there. People are starting to leave the team and you know, this work will never get done. While you may not have been in this particular horror show, we’ve all been there in one form or another, stuck in a project that simultaneously never seemed to slow down or go anywhere. Whenever you find yourself in this situation, it’s essential to pull out and think about where all of it is going – enter the 😱pre-mortem.
During a pre-mortem, the team is imagining they are at the end of a project that has just failed miserably. The pre-mortem is a detailed description of how you ended up failing. This is important because it will support the type of thinking that is required in risk analysis.
Pre-mortem vs post-mortem
So with the pre-mortem, you look into the future. In contrast, the postmortem is often used to review what can be learned in hindsight.
A tiny bit of background, pre-mortems are not a brainchild of my personal imagination, (I wish I was this brilliant) nor are they the latest buzzword. The Psychologist Gary Klein first presented the pre-mortem method in 1998. The pre-mortem method has been covered by various influential personalities such as Guy Kawasaki and even had an appearance in the Freakonomics podcast.
In evaluations, the pre-mortem versus other critiquing techniques showed that the pre-mortem reduces (over)confidence more than any of the other techniques.
The pre-mortem is a brilliant team exercise that will help you focus on what really matters. It provides a safe space for your whole team to share reservations and concerns that might, otherwise, never surface.
Running a pre-mortem (30-60 minutes)
Getting started: Assign a facilitator to run the session. The leader initiates by setting the scene, “the project has failed in a spectacular manner”.
Let it all out: Take 15 minutes for each participant to write down, individually, all the reasons for the failure – specifically issues that might normally not have a place in a discussion. For example, during a pre-mortem I facilitated for an innovation team within a corporate financial institution, a team member suggested that internal politics would make it impossible to successfully launch the product within the company. So alternative launch strategies were discussed early on.
Tip: Write down 1 reason per post-it so they can be read and shared easily.
Share: Next, the facilitator asks each team member to read out and place the reasons on a whiteboard or a wall.
Improve the plan: Once the session is over, the project manager reviews the list and looks for ways to improve the plan. This is crucial since none of the issues are addressed in a plan the whole exercise is kind of pointless. Set a date and review the plan as a team. Try to do this asap ideally no longer than 1 week after the session.
Starting at the end is surprisingly fun and effective. Teams come out feeling valued and heard and each member can learn from the other. Pre-mortems are far more constructive than post-mortems and stimulate strategic thinking. While a post-mortem usually ends up in people blaming each other, the pre-mortem helps teams think about what can be done to improve the current situation.
I have facilitated numerous sessions at various stages of projects. If you are new to a project it will provide a headstart because you hear issues that would otherwise hardly come to light. At later stages, it’s great to refocus and get things done.
By using the pre-mortem, we can circumvent disasters before they happen.