Pre-Mortem — How to avoid disaster

Tom Connor
Jun 6, 2018 · 3 min read

A simple exercise in looking at what went wrong- before it does.

How did it all go so wrong? The project which you were sure was going to deliver the game changing improvement in the business bottom line has not only failed to live up to the hype, but it seriously risks flopping entirely. Money, time and reputations down the drain. An unmitigated disaster.

Stand back, take a breath. Think about how you got here. What went wrong along the route to turn this pile of gold into worthless spoil. Now write it down and put in measures to make sure it doesn’t happen in real life — luckily you had the good sense to perform a pre-mortem on the project and understand the pitfalls before they happen.

This pre-mortem technique, designed by psychologist Gary Klein, is an exercise in practicing hindsight in advance.

[Klein] asks executives to use their minds to time — travel into the future and then look back at the plan that they’re about to put into action . As Klein explains ,

“ A typical pre — mortem begins after the team has been briefed on the plan . The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly . Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure — especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems . ”

One by one , people read off the reasons why they imagine that the project could spin out into a massive failure . The pre — mortem

“reduces the kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed by people who are over — invested in a project . The exercise also sensitises the team to pick up early signs of trouble once the project gets under way. In the end , a pre — mortem may be the best way to circumvent any need for a painful postmortem . ”

“Inventology — How we dream up things that change the world” — Pagan Kennedy

A key part to a successful pre-mortem is to be able to shift your perspective and frame, allowing you to uncover biases you may have that are masking potential issues. Ex Intel CEO Andy Grove famously reframed the situation when he had a difficult decision about the direction of the company to make, to imagine that his successor was making the decision — What would your successor do? As they don’t have the corporate baggage associated with the project that you do, often this outside perspective can be more objective in making the decision or seeing the risks. Putting yourself in these shoes can save much pain!

For some practical tips on running a pre-mortem , check out these links from Riskology, Cloud — coach or Shift

Seth Godin summarises it best on his blog

If you want us to take your new proposal seriously, consider including a pre mortem.

Include a detailed analysis of why your project might fail.

Specific weak spots, individuals who need to come on board, assumptions that might not be true…

If you’ve got a track record of successfully predicting specific points of failure before they happen, we’re a lot more likely to trust your judgment next time.

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Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and…

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