Anticipating failure with a pre-mortem

A pre-mortem is the opposite of a post-mortem. A post-mortem allows the team to learn from what happened during a project. We use pre-mortems to identify everything that could go wrong before the project starts.

In a typical critiquing session, team members ask what might go wrong; a pre-mortem assumes the project did go wrong. Then, team members generate reasons why the failure occurred.

Overview – This activity consists of three parts:

  1. Brainstorm ideas to create an extensive list of failure scenarios your project might face from your individual and collective perspectives.
  2. Fine-tuning ideas by selecting five to ten challenges that your team thinks have the most significant impact and probability.
  3. Turning your ideas into action by writing up mitigation strategies for the challenges you listed as most important.

Run time: 60 to 90 minutes

People: 3 to 11

Roles needed: Facilitator, notetaker

Before starting the pre-mortem, there are a few things you need to prepare.

For remote teams, you will need a collaboration document. This document could be a Google spreadsheet or Trello board. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as you can collaborate.

For in-person teams, find a meeting room, grab a whiteboard or a large roll of paper, sticky notes and marker pens.

On your remote collaboration document, whiteboard or paper, you will need to add the following columns:

  • What could cause us to miss our goal or deadline?
  • What will help us meet our goal or keep our project on time?
  • What does this project need that we don’t have?
  • What do we already have that this project needs?
  • What lessons have you learned from past projects?
  • What worries you about this project?
  • What excites you about this project?
  • Other things to discuss

Now you’re ready to start.

Before the team starts brainstorming ideas, the facilitator needs to set the stage.

Start the pre-mortem by asking the team to consider the following questions:

  • What could go wrong with this project?
  • What could go right with this project?

The meeting aims to focus only on the project, so ensure everyone in the room understands the project goals.

Give the team ten minutes to silently write their ideas on the collaboration document or sticky notes placed under each question.

Ideas can be big or small. Nothing is off-limits.

Don’t brainstorm solutions; you will do that as a team later.

Go around the team and get everyone to share their ideas.

New ideas are welcome at any stage; if someone hears something that sparks an idea, they should write it down and share it.

Work together as a team to merge similar ideas into themes. Creating themes will help when it comes to selecting ideas later.

Once you have grouped your ideas into themes/challenges, select between five and ten (or more if necessary) that your team thinks have the most significant impact and probability.

Use dot voting to select the challenges.

Ask team members to vote on the cards or sticky notes that pose the biggest threats to the project. Then, with a different coloured dot, ask the team to vote on the items going well and represent the key to the project’s success.

Give each team member three (or more if needed) votes. They can choose how they use their votes. For example, they can use all three votes on one card, two votes on one card and one vote on another, or one vote on three different cards.

The team should discuss the challenges as a group, considering the following questions:

  • Which challenges should you be most worried about?
  • Which challenges are the most likely to happen?
  • Which of these challenges do you have control over?
  • Which of these challenges has the most significant negative impact?

It’s worth using a prioritisation framework to help the team agree during the discussion.

Write your challenges in a prioritised list.

Now that you have a prioritised list of challenges, it’s time to develop potential solutions.

Use the following framework to document the challenges and how you plan to address them:

  • Action name
  • Owner(s)
  • Priority (probability and impact)
  • Deadline
  • Outcomes or scenarios
  • Possible mitigating strategies

Don’t file the pre-mortem away in a dusty cabinet! Instead, track the actions from the pre-mortem and follow up occasionally to ensure you’re aware of the project’s risks and are actively addressing them.

Updated on: 9 May 2021

Are you building something interesting?

Get in touch