Performing a Premortem
If a post-mortem tells us what the cause of death was then the pre-mortem is the opportunity to discuss in advance what the cause of death could be for our project.
It’s a simple idea, but it can create stacks of value.
A pre-mortem is a workshop that gives a space for everyone to feedback what they’re thinking and where they think things could go wrong.
Firstly, it creates a space where people feel they can share in a more open way. Often if you’re trying to create a positive environment then a negative side effect of that is that people might not want to feel like they’re rocking the boat by sharing cynical views, complaining or worrying. This is the value of moving away from false positive to candid, but that’s a separate topic.
Secondly, it gives a record of these things in advance, so that we can work collectively to role play scenarios and consider what needs adding to our risk register.
When we’ve done pre-mortems internally, we’ve followed this set of questions:
- What are you excited about?
- What are you worried about?
- What do we already have that the project needs?
- What does the project need that we don’t have?
- What will help us hit our targets/goals?
- What would cause us to miss our targets/goals?
- What is nobody talking about?
- What else?
If you’re doing a pre-mortem you can follow these questions, remix them or introduce new ones. I use these questions as I find they give a good mix of positive and candid, which take the audience into different headspace to consider issues and challenges in different ways.
It only takes a quick search online to find other pre-mortem templates and examples of additional questions.
The three phases here are:
Temp check (What are you excited about?/What are you worried about?)
Asset check (What do we already have that the project needs?/What does the project need that we don’t have?)
Accountability check (What will help us hit our targets/goals?/What would cause us to miss our targets/goals?)
The temp check is designed to quickly check in with everyone and see what the temperature is. How are people feeling? Is there more on the excited page than the worried page?
The asset check can serve to remind how far you’ve already come (assuming you have!) and where you’re already at an advantage or head start. This can also help to show you where people feel under-tooled or under-resourced.
The accountability check brings the goals into focus and helps everyone to remember that we need tangible success from this project. The responses here can help you understand whether there’s any risk of scapegoating, or externalising problems as opposed to internalising capacity and agency. There’s a wider piece in this on conditions such as PESTLE but also the lesson I talked about in How You Create Your Own Failure.
This is then all wrapped up with an open space What is nobody talking about?/What else?, which if the rest of the session has gone well should be able to flow well as people have lots of things in mind that they might not have been able to fit into one of those boxes.
From a practical perspective, you can do this in a stack of ways. We tend to use Google Jamboard which allows us to have a digital artefact to revisit after the workshop. You can easily do it with post it notes and white boards, or using tools like Google Forms.
What happens next is to not just put it to the bottom of the pile and ignore it having ticked it off the list. Add things to your risk register (you do have a risk register — right?), create follow ups with team members who have raised issues that appear to be reflective of a wider pattern, and share the outcomes with other stakeholders such as the tech team or sales team.
Leave plenty of time at the end of the session to role play scenarios, pull on threads and be prepared to be humbled. If you’ve acted like this idea is the next big thing and your team has to do it then you might not have ever given people a real opportunity to give good, honest feedback that can make your idea more sustainable and likely to succeed.
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