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The Pre-Mortem: A Simple Technique To Save Any Project From Failure

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Fellow Riskologist,

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Any doctor will tell you that. And so will any sick patient.

So, why is it that age-old wisdom like this is rarely practiced?

  • Few people exercise and eat right before they realize their health is failing.
  • You rarely see anyone keep up their car before it breaks down.
  • No one replaces their roof until water’s dripping on their head.

What’s baffling about these problems is they rarely come out of the blue. They aren’t surprises; we see them coming.

  • You can feel yourself slowly getting out of shape.
  • You know if you never change your oil, your car is going to die.
  • Every day you come home and, for a split second, notice the sagging in the roof before moving on to more pressing matters.

The same is true for any risk-taker working on a big project with many moving pieces. As you maneuver through each day, it takes everything you’ve got to get through the massive pile of to-dos.

You see certain things building up—things you know are going to cause big problems down the line, but they’re not urgent yet. More pressing matters get your attention.

And you know if you allow them to go wrong, they could sink the project. They’re big risks, and they’re right in plain sight!

As a smart Riskologist, you know damn well something must be done, but you feel too scattered to do anything.

Luckily, there’s one simple thing you can do to save any project from disaster, and I’m going to tell you about it now.

The Pre-Mortem Technique: Bringing Order to Chaos in A Big Project

Too often, we look back on projects gone horribly wrong and ask ourselves, “What happened?” We do a post-mortem and try to put together the broken pieces that will explain how we failed.

But after your project has failed is the wrong time to discuss the big problems it faced!

What you should’ve done, instead, is held a pre-mortem to look ahead at the challenges that could cause everything to fail, and created a plan to navigate around them.

As part of the small Action Team responsible for putting on a summit for 3,000 people here in Portland each summer, The Pre-Mortem Technique is one we adopted from year one and have held as a sacred ritual—one we know will shepherd our fragile event through any challenges that face it.

Several weeks before the show, we all get together with pizza and ice cream to geek out over the doom and gloom that could come our way. Sounds depressing, but putting big problems out in the open is actually quite a relief.

When you’re working on a high stakes project, no elephant should be left in the room!

Regardless of the goal you’re working on, there are three steps you can take to complete your own pre-mortem and put an iron-clad fence around success for your project.

How to Perform a Pre-Mortem in Three Steps

This is a relatively simple process and powerful in its ability to prevent crisis when done correctly. It’s important, though, that you complete every step and that you do them in the right order, following the instructions carefully.

Before the process, though, a few rules:

  • Set aside at least two hours of uninterrupted time. If that seems like a lot, ask yourself how much time it will take to clean up the mess you make if disaster strikes while your pants are down.
  • All stakeholders should be present. Invite everyone with a significant role to the pre-mortem. If you don’t, you’ll face a number of blind spots that could still blow up in your face… and you won’t even know they’re there because the person who could have alerted to you to them wasn’t invited. Everyone is equally important at the pre-mortem.
  • The pre-mortem must be a face to face meeting. This process will not work via email. A live chat could work, but it will be cumbersome. Video chats would be the next best solution. But unless it is physically impossible, get everyone together in one room. This is critical.
  • One person should do nothing but take notes. Lots of important problems and solutions get tossed around during a pre-mortem. They’ll be useless to you if someone isn’t in charge of making sure they’re remembered.

Now, the process…

Step 1: Spend one hour listing every possible problem you can imagine.

Your one and only job during the first hour of your pre-mortem is to get down—on paper or a whiteboard—every single problem that has even a remote chance of occurring that would derail your project.

Dream big! Dream small! At this stage, no problem is off-limits, and everyone at the meeting should feel completely uninhibited about tossing out things that sound ridiculous.

Your ability to do this well will depend on how great a job you’ve done building trust within your team. Or, if you’re flying solo, you’ll need to be open and honest with yourself.

Think of this as a brainstorming session of doom. All ideas go, and you should encourage your team to explore different variations of the same problem…

  • What if a monster eats a team member?
  • What if an elephant eats our guest of honor?
  • What if a monster and an elephant get in a fight in our venue?

…as well as very different, unrelated problems:

  • What if no one shows up to our event?
  • What if our website goes down?
  • What if the most important person backs out on us?

The goal is to create a completely exhaustive list of things that could go wrong. Any route you take to get there is allowed.

The only thing not allowed during this phase is proposed solutions. These are strictly forbidden because they draw the team away from getting every single problem out in the open.

If you have a team of talented and solution oriented people, you’ll find this is harder to manage than you think.

Step 2: Pick the top 10 problems.

At this point, you have a massive list of problems staring you in the face, and you need a method to make some sense of the madness.

Now is the time to pick the top 10 problems to focus on before moving into the next phase of the pre-mortem: finding solutions.

Here are a few rules you’ll want to follow to make sure you pick the best ones:

  • Focus on show-stoppers. The problems you focus on solving should be critical to your project. In other words, if  it occurs, will it severely impact the project? If the answer is no, cross it off; it doesn’t belong on your pre-mortem list. This rule will eliminate many of the minor issues that came up—and helped you find bigger problems—but aren’t really mission critical.
  • Pick problems likely to happen. Don’t waste time solving problems that aren’t likely to actually happen. Instead, try to home in on the “elephant in the room” problems that came up—the ones everyone was secretly worried about but never brought up until now.
  • Discard problems you have no control over. Every project will face some external risks that you simply can’t control. Toss those out now because there’s nothing you can do about them. This eliminates problems like “Tornado blows everyone to Canada.” From here on out, you’re focusing on problems you can actually fix.

Step 3: Spend one hour creating solutions.

Now is the time for your team to do what it does best: solve problems.

Believe it or not, this part is actually the easiest. Once the biggest problems are out in the open, their solutions become surprisingly simple. As Einstein used to say, “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.”

Go through each problem in your top ten list and either:

  1. Create a proactive solution for it (best for problems facing you now), or
  2. Define a backup plan (best for problems that could happen, but haven’t yet).

Most importantly, a solution is not complete until action items are created and assigned to team members to complete.

Never forget: this process is useless if you get all the way to creating a solution but don’t carry it out because no one knew they were in charge.

Your Homework Today

There are no guarantees when you’re taking on a big, risky project. Sometimes things will go wrong that you didn’t—or even couldn’t—anticipate. But taking a few hours to go through the pre-mortem process is a wise investment for any project that’s important to you.

Once you’ve done it, you can go to bed each night knowing all your bases are covered. Don’t underestimate the value of peace of mind.

Take five minutes and schedule a pre-mortem for whatever it is you’re working on now.

If you’re working with others, be sure to invite them.

Have you used the Pre-Mortem Technique before? How did it work for you? If you haven’t, what are you going to use it for? Share your story in the comments.

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What smart people are saying about this...

  1. Very smart advice. Preparation will save you when the sh** hits the fan, because something always goes wrong, so you better have thought of how to deal with it before hand. This is especially case if the danger is high. That’s why astronauts and pilots spend so much time in the simulators.

    • Good analogy about astronauts and pilots. In reality, you can’t plan for every possible wrong turn—there are too many—but you *can* prepare yourself to deal with problems so that when something unexpected comes up, you know how to handle it.

  2. Big product launches can be scary. This is why I always try to think about the worst case scenario prior to one. The biggest disaster if usually simple: nobody buys the product.

    You won’t get kicked off the Internet or anything like that.

  3. Hey Tyler,

    Have been your fan for a while now. I referenced your technique about pre-mortem to save any project on my blog.

    http://futureofprojectmanagement.com/2013/06/28/pre-mortem-save-your-project-technique-from-advanced-riskology/

    In the project management world, we have a concept of agile project management, where we do what we call as retrospectives, frequent lessons learned. What you have described is very similar to that concept. Love the post.

    Samir

  4. I love this, Tyler, and I’m going to do it shortly for my own projects.

    In the past I have always gotten stressed out about all the things that “could go wrong” without a structured process to go through them, decide which were most important, and to create solutions for the “top ten.” It was very overwhelming and anxiety-ridden. This, on the other hand, is much more manageable.

    Dan and Chip Heath suggest asking similar questions in their book, Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions in Life and in Work, which is well worth reading. (Can you tell by now that these guys are two of my favorite authors ever? :)

    • Yeah, I get the idea you’re kind of into them!

      And yes, the pre-mortem is a great exercise. It’s a bit masochistic, but I look forward to it every year—it’s a very valuable piece of the process for any big project.

  5. I heard a similar term a couple years ago about this same topic — it’s called the “hit-by-a-bus” factor. What can you do to make sure that your project still survives if one of the most important people was hit by a bus?

    It sounds morbid, but it gives us the perspective that things can go wrong in various aspects, just like you suggest. I just started doing this with my projects by downloading regular Backups to Dropbox.

    I also started being preventative with my health (insert shameless Paleo plug here), and it’s done wonders for sleep, focus, and skin.

    Once I start my next BIG project, I’ll be sure to take this advice and give this process a shot. Right on!

    • The pre-mortem and the hit-by-a-bus plan have slightly different focuses.

      The pre-mortem is to solve problems that we all see but don’t talk about before a big event occurs and the hit-by-a-bus-plan focuses on decentralizing information so that no single person (or their absence) can bring down a project.

      They’re both really important! And, right here on AR, I’ve realized my own hit-by-a-bus plan is in a sad state!

      • Ah, I see what you’re saying. Still very similar if you take in to the fact that we all know we might get hit by a bus one day, right? ;)

        As far as hit-by-a-bus plan as a blogger, it’s difficult because the content coming out of the site is dependent on YOU. I don’t think that’s a bad thing because it’s your creative works, but perhaps that plan would be to write some articles in advance or just link an IFTTT script to publish a “I got hit by a bus” if you actually got hit by a bus.

  6. One of my favorite aspects of project management is risk management. But no one and I mean NO ONE in my company ever wants to talk about it. Because risk is scary. The term pre-mortem is great. Makes it feel more manageable. Thanks!

    • Do you work in a big company, Andrea? One thing I learned working for a large corporation is that employees are often very risk averse because they’re encouraged to take risks or fail.

      They’re told to follow their job role and protect the company. As a result, the fear of losing their job is greater than the desire to try something risky.

  7. Where I work it’s called a project risk assessment. However the intent has been completely lost and it has become a checklist/box ticking exercise. So it is just a painful all day workshop that people avoid if at all possible.

    Done properly it is a great tool to keep your project on track.

  8. Your project Pre-Mortem approach has just re- invented a formal risk appraisal technique called Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA). FMEA was developed by reliability engineers in the 1940s for use in continuous improvement. Several industries maintain formal FMEA standards. It is especially used by the aerospace and automotive industries. It is generally used during the design stage to prevent failures by considering design alternatives that have the least risk.

    Failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) is a step-by-step approach for identifying all possible failures in a design, a manufacturing or assembly process, or a product or service. It also works on business processes. You can also use a FMEA in the design of your projects on both the admin aspect of how you handle the project called a “Process FMEA” and the product or service that you are trying to create with the project called a “Product FMEA”. I am using FMEA techniques in analyzing software process improvements for the product that our project is developing.

    The term “Failure modes” are the ‘how’, or modes, in which something might fail. Failures are any errors or defects, especially ones that affect the customer, and can be either potential or actual defects. The term “Effects analysis” is the study of the consequences of those failures. So, these techniques give you an idea of both how to identify risks and where to spend your time addressing those important risks. (This technique will help your project with known knowns and known unknowns, but not with the unknown unknowns, or the so called “Black Swans”).

    Failures are prioritized according to how serious their consequences are, how frequently they occur and how easily they can be detected. The purpose of the FMEA is to take actions to eliminate or reduce failures, starting with the highest-priority ones. The FMEA process results in the assignment of a weighted average (of three variables – severity x occurrence x detection) called a risk priority numbers (RPNs) to each potential failure. Target failures with the highest RPNs for improvement. For example, your severity category of “show-stoppers” would get the highest ranking. Your idea of picking problems likely to happen is called “Occurance” using FMEA.

    Take a look at this FMEA technique for your project risk assessments.

  9. I’ve read about the pre-mortem from Gary Klein’s talk at Davos and then again through the HBR, but the focus was less on finding solutions but rather in determining whether decisions were based on false notions of overconfidence and evaluating sources of information that led to a particular solution. So I would be less sure if your take on a pre-mortem is so efficient use of two hours or truly effective (instead of just a psychological boost, which of course could be useful). It might be helpful to realize that your bases aren’t exactly covered, as no plan really covers the future. If you want to address the idea of covering unforeseen problems and who is responsible for what, have you heard of the idea of commander’s intent as developed in the military is more suited, rather than the pre-mortem. Commander’s Intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in enemy situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed. “The role of Commander’s Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changed battlefield environment. Commander’s Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like. Commander’s Intent is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments.” (Managing Uncertainty with Commander’s Intent, Chad Storile, HBR Blog Network, 3 November 2010)

  10. […] Gary Klein’s PreMortem exercise consists of gathering a group of people in your organization and telling them that the project has failed spectacularly. They write down all the possible reasons for the failure. Problems are surfacing while there is still time to make changes. The team is also sensitized to early warning signs of possible problems. A more complete set of instructions can be found at The Pre-Mortem: A Simple Technique To Save Any Project From Failure. […]

Founded with love by Tyler Tervooren