Premortem: before starting a new project, learn why it will end in failure

A simple method for uncovering big, “undiscussable” risks to a project.

Premortem: before starting a new project, learn why it will end in failure
Photo by Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

Identify project risks using this fun, thought-provoking 15-minute method to capture wisdom from the people who know best—those who will do the work and those who will be affected by it.

I give you the venerable project premortem.

I recommend this method if you’re leading a project in your own organization. And if you’re a consultant, like me, it can be a significant information-seeking behavior at the beginning of a project.

The underlying capability is prospective hindsight:

“Prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.”
Gary Klein in HBR, 2007

The premortem is not a new idea; the 2007 article quoted above popularized the technique. However, I keep using it because each time I do, I learn things that are valuable to know at the beginning of a new project—and particularly with a new client.

The power of the premortem is twofold:

  1. People will just tell you things if you ask them nicely.
  2. And if you ask using prospective hindsight, they will come up with surprising answers, sometimes even mentioning their organization’s “undiscussables.”

A few things I’ve learned from premortems

  • That the current effort was the second attempt, and therefore doomed to failure for the same reasons the first effort failed.
  • That the current effort was the third attempt, etc.
  • The existence of a specific policy making the intended change impossible, and that policy-makers were not involved in designing or selecting the project.
  • That the ongoing budget to support this work had already been allocated to a particular technology, program, or team.
  • That people don’t trust/believe in their leadership, or in the project’s sponsors, or in one another.
  • Various discoveries about an organization’s deficiencies in communication and clumsiness in landing changes.

These were all things worth learning quickly—quickly, as in cheaply, and quickly, as in early enough that possibilities remained for adjustment or even mere awareness.

Here’s how it’s done: running your premortem

  1. Before the meeting, write a simple scenario. Something like: “It is December 2023 and our project has failed spectacularly. As the first snow falls, we gather together and ask—what happened? Why did this fail?” Be precise about the future date: maybe 2 months after the presumed project completion; link the date to some major event or local seasonality.
  2. Schedule 15 minutes in a project kick-off meeting to run the premortem.
  3. At the start of the premortem, state the scenario and ask the question.
  4. Allow 1-3 minutes for individual reflection.
  5. Offer an anonymous feedback form and invite participants to provide their responses. Clearly state how you will use these, for example, that individual responses remain anonymous, but you will share themes and takeaways with the group and with project sponsors.
  6. After the individual reflection time is complete, open up for a brief discussion across whatever participation modes are available. Acknowledge and thank people for their responses. Do not attempt to problem-solve or diagnose right now, but make it clear you’ll be doing so later. If project sponsors, execs, etc. attend, you will have to coach them on this behavior in advance, the message being: “we’re listening now, we’ll problem-solve afterwards.”
  7. Close by saying “thank you” and telling people where and when you will share themes and takeaways from the premortem, ideally with planned remediations for each.

An encouragement

The project premortem concept may seem a little weird. It is.

But it’s a great way to show up and listen. The simple act of listening to people and adjusting based on what you hear is wonderful.

And, almost as a side effect, the things you hear people say may be the very things that will doom the project to failure… or that could be transformed into what eventually make the project a great success.