This Hour-and-a-Half Exercise Can Keep You From the Brink of Failure

What if you could significantly reduce the chances of a major project failure by investing an extra hundred minutes of time? A no-brainer, right?

We’ve all heard of a postmortem: upon project completion, we use hindsight to perform a project autopsy to identify what we could have done differently to get a better result.

On the other end of the timeline is the premortem, an approach developed by Gary Klein. The premortem uses foresight to identify and address potential issues early in the initiative through assuming that the project has failed and, instead, asks what went wrong along the way.

The team conducting the premortem then comes up with reasons as to why it had failed, identifying the potential problems to prepare for or fix before they become a reality.

An obvious benefit of a premortem is to increase your chances of delivering an on-time, high-quality result. But don’t underestimate the less obvious benefits. The critical thinking and candid discussion this approach demands sends an important message about what your company values:

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  • Identifying potholes and acknowledging “elephants in the room” is expected
  • Giving all stakeholders a voice provides important perspective
  • Sometimes, slowing down to speed up is the best approach

7 Steps to Perform a Premortem

Plan at least ninety minutes. Stay focused on progressing through these steps. Capture important but not directly-related topics as they arise on a separate flip chart for later discussion.

1. Get the right people in the room, including the project team AND stakeholders. Excluding stakeholders means missing a prime opportunity to gain valuable perspectives, build buy-in, and avoid finger-pointing when, not if, a problem arises.

2. Set the right tone and context.

  • The most senior stakeholder introduces the premortem and sets expectations for a candid exchange. Don’t be afraid to plant a “devil’s advocate” to raise questions at the start. How these “naysayers'” topics are handled will set the tone for the coming exercise. Welcome and appreciate them.
  • Create a realistic context in order to stoke your team’s best critical thinking: It has been ten days since this important initiative went “live.” It is clear we have a disaster on our hands. Feedback is overwhelmingly negative. People are frustrated and angry; excuses are flying; we are all wondering how this could have happened.Let participants solidify that scenario in their minds.

3. Generate the issues. Each participant works independently for five minutes to generate and document on a flip chart all the issues that led to this debacle. No topics are off-limits.

4. Share issues and implications. Each person succinctly reviews their list with the larger group. If the implication of the issue isn’t obvious, ask for a one sentence explanation. Do not engage in analysis or debate during this step.

5. Rank the issues. Each participant considers both the issues’ likelihood of occurrence and degree of impact. Each places a checkmark by their top ten concerns. Circle the ten issues receiving the most checkmarks (more if this is a project with lots of potholes).

6. Create and share solutions.

  • Divide into small teams (interdepartmental, if possible). Assign two issues to each group. Each team spends twenty minutes to generate solutions, knowing the list is not meant to be exhaustive.
  • Each team has five minutes to present to the whole group. Other participants listen and document questions/comments for later communication.

7. Determine next steps. Don’t let a lack of clear ownership or next steps derail your work. Choose one person as the “owner” of each issue. This person then articulates a specific next step and timeframe by when this step will be completed (e.g., gathering the additional group input by July 1). Finally, the owner is responsible for incorporating this information into the project plan to ensure the risk is mitigated.


After the premortem exercise, the overall project lead is responsible for:

  • ensuring all issues (including the lower priority issues) are addressed in the project plan.
  • acknowledging and addressing the tangential issues documented during the meeting.
  • communicating updated plans to stakeholders.
  • continually assessing the need for another premortem exercise.

A premortem is a simple, low cost, high value investment that significantly increases your chances of delivering a high quality result.

If you don’t think you have time for this 100-minute investment, ask yourself if you prefer to spend ten to a hundred times that (or more) to clean up a preventable mess instead. How will that sit with your stakeholders?

> Read the original article at Inc. magazine

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