Pre-mortem might save your project from failure

Leadership  Learning
22 October, 2018

Apply the 20/20 clarity of hindsight to predict future obstacles

Have you ever looked back at a project that went horribly wrong and asked yourself, “What on earth were we thinking? How could we not have seen this coming?”

Hindsight is 20/20. When examining past events, you have a clearer perspective – you can see exactly what went wrong, and how you could have prevented it. This practice is so useful that many leaders conduct “post-mortems” on failed projects, deriving valuable lessons for the future.

However, wouldn’t it be better not to fail in the first place? While many teams do run pre-execution risk assessments, their effectiveness is limited. Is there a way to bring the clarity of hindsight to the process of pre-empting future obstacles? 

Research reveals that prospective hindsight – imagining that an event has already happened – increases people’s ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent. Based on this finding, psychologist Gary Klein created the “pre-mortem” – a way to help teams identify project risks at the outset, so they can be addressed in time. This method is based on the belief that the right time to ask questions is before things start to collapse.

So, this week, my message focuses on the advantages of pre-mortems and how you can use them to save projects from failure.

In his Harvard Business Review article, Performing a Project Premortem, Klein describes the concept:

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong.

One of the key reasons why projects fail is that people are reluctant to speak up about their concerns during the planning phase.

Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who is a great believer in the effectiveness of pre-mortems, explains this hesitation:

Organisations like optimists. Pessimists are almost disloyal….to be a pessimist about a project…is actually taking a significant risk of your popularity, if not worse. What the pre-mortem technique does, which I think is beautiful, is it legitimises dissent. Actually, it turns things around. It rewards people for being imaginative in finding flaws in the current plan.

So, what makes a pre-mortem incredibly useful is that it opens up a space for counter views and doubts, which would otherwise never get a chance to be considered.

In the article mentioned above, Klein gives an example:

In a session assessing a research project…a senior executive suggested that the project’s “failure” occurred because there had been insufficient time to prepare a business case prior to an upcoming corporate review of product initiatives.

During the entire 90-minute kickoff meeting, no one had even mentioned any time constraints. The project manager quickly revised the plan to take the corporate decision cycle into account.

Here is a simple three-step process for conducting your own project pre-mortem:

Stage 1: Doom and gloom 

Begin by informing the team that it’s one year later and your project has been a complete disaster. Each person must now generate reasons for this failure. Give them five minutes to jot down their thoughts – and don’t put any restrictions on the “right” types of problems. In fact, encourage ideas that would normally be considered unthinkable or unsayable.

Next, it’s time to share and collate. Go around the room, one reason per person, until all the problems have been documented on a whiteboard. Remind the team to talk about the issues as if they have already happened. At this stage, all ideas are acceptable, no matter how improbable. The only rule is – no solutions allowed! That gets in the way of creating an exhaustive list of problems.

As Klein explains, framing the exercise through prospective hindsight has a wonderfully liberating effect. Instead of worrying about seeming pessimistic or disloyal, team members actually vie with one another to come up with persuasive reasons for the project’s failure.

Stage 2: Top contenders 

Now, it’s time to shortlist your top ten reasons for failure. Identify problems that meet the following criteria:

  • Show stoppers: Issues that can bring your entire project down should be top priority
  • Plausible: Chosen reasons must be in the realm of reasonable possibility
  • Within your control: Eliminate the kinds of problems that would be labelled “acts of god” in insurance documents. There isn’t much we can do to prevent such disasters, so don’t waste time on them.

In the article, Performing a startuppremortem: the how, what and why, SatejSirur offers a useful way of approaching the shortlisting process:

Make sure you weigh the factors by how likely they are and how much damage they can cause. It does not help to ignore the low-hanging fruit and to fix the rare occurrences. Use the Pareto principle and prioritise the 20% items that will reduce 80% of the risk.

Step 3: Solution storm 

Finally, it’s time to review your top ten problems and figure out how you could have prevented them from happening. Ask questions like, “What caused that?”, “Why didn’t we see this coming?”, and “What could we have done differently?”. Interrogate each weakness, and get as specific as you can about the proposed resolution.

Based on these solutions, revise your project plan and create actionable steps. Also assign roles and responsibilities at this stage – there’s little point in having all these precious insights if no-one takes ownership of acting on them.

Here are three golden rules for a successful pre-mortem:

1. Ensure a cross-section of views

Invite people across all relevant groups and seniority levels, so you can get input on every aspect of the project. This will help you avoid blind spots. While leaders bring a macro perspective, junior employees have an up-close understanding of execution – their feedback on small yet crucial details could prevent your entire project from being derailed.

2. Make enough time

A quick 20-minute discussion isn’t going to cut it. Experts recommend setting aside anywhere between 1-2 hours (the longer, the better) to thrash out problems and solutions. If you feel like that’s too much time, just imagine how many hours you’ll end up wasting if your project crashes and burns! The timing of the pre-mortem is also important: it should take place after planning, but before going into full execution mode.

3. Document everything

Assign 1-2 people to simply take extensive notes. The pre-mortem will throw up some very real risks – however, if they’re forgotten by the end of the meeting, the exercise becomes futile. After the discussion, the project manager should review the notes and make sure every problem is accounted for – it was discussed by the team and, if on the shortlist, was converted into an actionable solution and assigned to someone.

Why not agree today to conducting a pre-mortem on an upcoming project?


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