Premortem analysis: anticipate failure to achieve success

The project died. The team is frustrated and depressed. Energy levels are low, glum faces all around. In hindsight it’s all so clear! You can avoid this terrible fate with a premortem analysis, a simple and powerful approach to help you anticipate failure, and avoid it.

Premortem analysis definition

The opposite of postmortem, the premortem takes place at the start of your project to make sure it has a healthy and happy life.

Lucid meetings offers this premortem definition:

A Pre-Mortem is a meeting before a project starts in which a team imagines what might happen to cause a project to fail. The team then works backward to create a plan to help prevent potential obstacles and increase the chances of success. This technique is recommended by behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists as an especially effective way of combatting cognitive bias and reducing project risk.

The premortem analysis technique was developed by Gary Klein, and is based on ‘prospective hindsight’ – placing yourself in the future and looking back – to help teams more effectively identify risks at the outset of a project.

It is an increasingly popular technique, partly due to this HBR article: Performing a Project Premortem.

Benefits of a premortem analysis

The prospective hindsight approach has unique benefits compared with other risk analysis techniques.

Asking your team to imagine themselves in the future shifts their perspective, identifying reasons for failure becomes a much more comfortable and empowering process.

Looking back from the future:

  • Creates permission to identify problems and risk
  • The team no longer feel it’s inappropriate to raise causes of failure
  • It encourages creative and out-of-the-box thinking
  • Encourages dissenting opinions and avoids ‘groupthink’
  • Liberates people to express themselves

It’s a sneaky way to get people to do contrarian, devil’s-advocate thinking without encountering resistance. Gary Klein

The Premortem analysis process

The premortem analysis process is simple, but powerful.

Premortem step 1: preparation

It’s ideal to run the premortem analysis immediately after the initial team briefing, when goals and project plans have been introduced to the team.

At this point the team know enough about the project for the premortem to work effectively, but are not too invested in an existing plan.

The premortem analysis will take about 45 minutes to 1 hour and requires Post-It notes and ideally space to move around and a wall that’s good for posting the notes (more here on workshop facilitation skills).

Premortem step 2: imagine a disaster

Bring as much drama as you can to this opening step.

Klein talks about using a crystal ball (great if you can bring in a physical prop to help you do this!). Explain to your team that you are looking into the crystal ball to see the outcome of the proposed plan and the ball says that it will be an embarrassingly disastrous failure! It is up to them to figure out all the possible reasons for failure.

Or alternatively ask the team to close their eyes and take them to a date 6-9 months into the future (or whatever is an appropriate timescale for your project).

Have some fun with this (practice your storytelling skills). Take a look at this premortem analysis example:

Please close your eyes, thank you. I’d like you to imagine your body moving through space and time into the future. It’s Friday already, you’re leaving for the weekend. You’re accelerating into the future, a month has past. The Cubs have won the World Series again (or whatever appropriate milestones you want to add in!), time is moving even more quickly now, it’s September, the project is finished. Unfortunately, the project has been a complete failure, an utter disaster. So many unexpected events hit us, and we never made it. The project failed to deliver, it died. It’s awful, truly awful. Now, without leaving that future I’d like you to slowly open your eyes.

I trust you get the general idea!

Premortem step 3: generate reasons for failure

Now, invite your team to individually jot down all the reasons they feel that failure has occurred. Why do this individually? Because, according to Klein, each individual “has a unique set of experiences, scars, and mental models they bring.”

This does not take long. Give out the Post-It notes and tell the team they have 2 minutes to write down all the reasons for failure that they can imagine – 1 idea per Post-It note.

Two minutes brings a little urgency to this task, which is great, though you can extend the time if people are still writing after two minutes. At this stage, encourage people to write, not talk or share.

Premortem step 4: consolidate the lists

This is where some space and a wall for Post-It notes really helps. If you can, get everyone on their feet and ask them to work as a team to group and organize all the Post-It notes on the wall.

This is great for creating movement, energy and helps a consensus emerge as the ideas are shared.

If you don’t have this space then simply have each person voice out the items in their lists, as you record them for all to see (either on flipcharts or using a laptop and projector).

Premortem step 5: revisit the plan

Finally, once all the ideas have been shared and grouped, start to prioritize the areas of concern.

Some improvements to the project plan will be obvious and immediate, for others you’ll need to schedule follow-up meetings to discuss.

The goal is to mitigate the identified risks and avoid and minimize other problems. You might consider ranking each Post-It note by likelihood and impact, creating a simple risk impact / probability chart.

Highly likely to happen and with high impact are obviously topics that will take priority.

The final step. I’d add one final step too. Celebrate the work you’ve just done as a team! You’ve just given your project the best possible start.

Premortem Analysis example

Imagine you’re planning a team building event, what are all the things that could go wrong? Grab some Post-It notes and let’s explore this premortem analysis example!

This is something that I worked on recently myself, I was planning a team-building event for a client. Here’s what I wrote on those Post-It notes:

  • Nobody enjoys the activities
  • There are no clear learning points from the activities
  • Nobody is able to complete the activities, which leaves everyone frustrated
  • Someone gets hurt completing the activities
  • Participants just stick with the people they know, don’t really explore new relationships
  • It’s not easy to get to the venue, so everyone arrives a little burnt out before they begin
  • The catering is terrible and nobody likes the food
  • There’s not enough space for people to move around and mingle

All these points are good and valid possible problems. It took me just a few minutes to generate this list and now I have a stronger foundation for planning the team building event.

Let’s take just one or two of these points as examples.

The first point reminds me that it would be a great idea to reach out to some of the participants to discuss potential activities. It will help me understand what resonates well with them and also give me insight into any activities that they’ve undertake as a team previously (nothing is worse than bringing a whole set of team building activities that they’ve already experienced!).

The second point reminds me that I need to have clear learning points to the activities. Of course they should be fun and engaging, but when the excitement has subsided we also need to be able to discuss what we have learnt from the activity.

As you can see, this simple premortem analysis example highlights the power of premortems to anticipate and overcome problems!

In conclusion

Too many business projects don’t delivery their full potential. And too often it’s easy – with hindsight – to look back and say “why didn’t we anticipate that!”.

Use the premortem analysis at the start of your project to give it a better chance of a healthy and happy life. Research show that you’ll be 30% more successful at identifying reasons for failure using this technique!