62 - Premortems: why you should kill your dream project to save it



We agree that _talking _about failure is healthy, but we forget to _think _about failing ahead of time.

There aren’t many organizations where people are encouraged to entertain the thought of crashing and burning. Project leaders do not close out meetings with “Folks, we came up with nine reasons our new service launch may fail. Superb job, all!”

But what if they did? Welcome to the land of premortems!

Premortems invert the idea of a postmortem by discussing the cause of death while there’s life. You may know something called After Action Reviews done at the end of the project. Think of premortems as Before Action Reviews done at the start. Why would you do this?

To avoid postmortems. When reviewing failed projects, we slip into what I think of as retrospective certainty: “I knew there was something wrong” or “If you remember, I had brought up the point of…” We’re all hurting inside and we crave feel-good. The goal is to avoid death, not pinpoint the cause of it. So how about nudging your team to voice doubts while there’s a chance to survive?

Gary Klein, the inventor of the premortem, has a simple four-step process for it.

  1. Project leader informs the team that the project has failed spectacularly (“patient has died”).
  2. Everyone separately and simultaneously writes down why they thought the project failed (“probable causes of death”).
  3. The leader then asks each member to read one reason from their list and curates all reasons voiced.
  4. After the meeting, the leader reviews the list and strengthens the project plan to counter all problems.

Some specifics to help you replicate a pre-mortem at your workplace:

  • Role: Project leader is NOT the project manager. You need someone with clarity and oversight.
  • Timing: Do a premortem before project execution, not before project planning. You want to have a plan to find holes in. At the same time, it should not be so close to launch that it doesn’t allow you time to pre-correct. Think clearly about what the best time frame may be like for you.
  • Habit: Shreyas Doshi, a big proponent of pre-mortems as a way preventing problems, understands exactly what will drive repeatable behavior so he adds his own labels to help people easily recall surfaced problems (“tigers, paper tigers, and elephants”)

Organizational optimism is useful. It is what drives people along in the face of uncertainty and pushes them forward in the face of setbacks. But it also harms if not paired with negative visualization.

This is where premortems beat postmortems!

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