The One Thing You Should Do Before Every Big Project

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Are you prepared for the worst?

Nobody likes to be pessimistic about the likelihood of a big project succeeding, but it’s far more useful to imagine the worst now than to pick through the rubble of a failed project later.

In Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making, research psychologist Gary Klein proposed holding a premortem before each big project.

He wrote,

After a project has failed, its managers may conduct a postmortem session to figure out what went wrong. But it is too late. The project has already failed. Why wait till the end to find out what went wrong? We can move the postmortem to the beginning to help us anticipate problems and to become more realistic about the challenges.

How To Run A Premortem

Take tech startups.

According to a 2017 report by CB Insights, up to 70 percent of tech companies fail.

If you’re hosting a premortem in your business, you (or the facilitator) and key team members sit in a room and imagine a scenario where a big project failed.

Now it’s your team’s job to figure out what you can do to prevent the worst from happening.

Klein said, With a smaller team you go around just once. But in a larger group most of the problems get voiced during the first time through. You just need to manage more carefully to avoid redundancies.

The questions asked at a premortem depend on the nature of your product, service or project. However, these four considerations will help you get started.

What Could Go Wrong?

The same CB report cited the most common reasons for tech startup failures as no market need, running out of cash, not having the right team and losing to competition.

Perhaps the technology underpinning your product or service is unreliable or expensive.

Or you’ve negotiated a tenuous contract with a supplier, and costs could quickly spiral. Maybe you’re over-reliant on the performance of a single team member who could leave.

With each of your team members, brainstorm about the worst happening.

What If We Ship Late?

Every project that stands a chance of real-world success has deadlines. A marketing campaign must be launched by the end of the week, a new website by month’s end and a new range of products by the end of the quarter.

And so on.

During your team’s premortem, consider what would happen if you missed this deadline and how to communicate this lapse to stakeholders and customers.

What If No One Buys?

In 1985 in an effort to ward off rival Pepsi, Coca-Cola launched “new Coke”. This drink tasted more like Pepsi than Coca-Cola.

Customers hated it.

Later, former chief operating officer and director Don Keough famously said,

Some critics will say Coca-Cola made a marketing mistake. Some cynics will say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is we’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart.

In just a matter of months, the beverage company abandoned its new product.

So what would you do if customers didn’t like your new product or no one bought it?

Do you have a plan B?

What If It’s Too Expensive?

The first Tesla Roadster cost $110,000. That’s way beyond the price range of the average U.S. car buyer. However, the management team at Tesla prioritized shipping the first version of their electric car over releasing an affordable first version.

They wanted to give the market confidence in the company and planned on releasing more affordable electric cars later. Today, you can buy a Model S for a somewhat more affordable $62,700.

Is your company prepared to release a product that’s too expensive? If so, what does success look like?

What If The Competition Is Better?

The most extreme example of a product being better than its competitors is the first Apple iPhone.

Other phone manufacturers had shipped touchscreen phones and smartphones before Apple, but no company brought them together in a way that Steve Jobs and Apple did.

He famously said at the Macworld expo stage in San Francisco in 2007,

“An iPod, a phone and an internet communicator. An iPod, a phone — are you getting it?”

Samsung and other companies took several years to catch up with Apple. Others such as Nokia were left behind permanently.

Does your team have a plan if competitors release their equivalent of the iPhone?

Plan For Success

Klein said the secret to a successful premortem is to envision a plan has failed and go from there.

One mistake is to muse ‘what could go wrong?’ instead of asserting that the plan has failed. Another mistake is to be too slow-paced instead of always putting pressure on participants to keep the ideas flowing.

After you and your team have explored these questions, you should be able to plan for contingencies to prevent the worst from happening.

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