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Every project manager should be performing a pre-mortem

ManagementEdward KiledjianComment

As a business leader, I have participated in and managed hundreds of post-mortem reviews for projects and deals. It is a sound strategy to identify the elements that failed or that could be optimized/

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana

But what if you could gain all of the benefits of this activity before the initiative fails thus potentially saving it? A pre-mortem (or premortem) basically is a role playing game where participants assume the project has already failed and then determine why it failed and how failure could have been prevented. 

Why this works

Issues rarely "just happen". Typically there are warning signals that show up prior to any failure. Typically these are:

  • You know you are not undertaking the required maintenance which will likely lead to failure (project monitoring, follow-ups, etc)
  • You can "feel" the project deviating from its core purpose
  • You start noticing "out of the ordinary" or unexpected results 

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Instead of retrospectively looking at why the project failed, why not take the time to foresee what could go wrong and fix it?

The best way is to invite a core group of knowledgeable experts and ask them to imagine the project failing then lead the group to identify possible preventative measures. It sounds easy because it is.

The Pre-Mortem Process

Step 1 - Doom and Gloom

Lock up your key people in a room and ask them to imagine every possible way the project could fail. Big or small it should be written down individually on a sheet of paper. Remind the team that no failure is too big or too small. Every issue should be started with "what if"

  • What if the supplier doesn't deliver the part
  • What if the supplier goes out of business
  • What if the price of the part shoots up significantly
  • What if...
  • what if...
  • what if... 

As a moderator, your role is to ensure everyone spends this time thinking about problems and not solutions. No judgement and no logical thought. We don't want participants making risk judgements to eliminate possible failures. 

Step 2 - Prioritization

Share all of the failure possibilities with the participants and narrow down the list to the top 10, top 20 or whatever other number you are comfortable with. For most projects, I typically like top 10 lists. For more critical or larger projects, I may go to a top 25 list.

When reviewing the list (collectively), remind the participants that there are really 3 things to consider in this step

  1. Choose failures whose realization will have a severe and catastrophic impact on the project. 
  2. Choose failures who are likely to happen. There could be some debate but the threat of a comet hitting your datacenter could probably be crossed off the list.
  3. Choose failures that are in your span of control. Some failures are outside of your control and cannot be mitigated by you. Chuck those out.

Step 3 - Solutioning 

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
— Abraham Lincoln

If the first 2 steps where done properly and diligently then this last step should be fairly easy and straightforward. Assigned the final problems to owners and each owner must:

  • Come up with a plan to prevent the failure from occurring
  • Come up with a backup plan in case prevention doesn't work

The final step is to ensure every action item is given an owner and a due date. These should be tracked as part of the master project plan and reported on weekly.