The premortem, developed by Gary Klein, is a method used to anticipate project failures before they actually occur. Like a medical postmortem, it examines how a project failed – but it’s conducted before the failure occurs so there’s still time to prevent it. It’s a “low cost, high payoff” technique (McKinsey & Company, 2010) that could potentially save your project from a devastating loss.
Our project premortem model follows these steps:
- Imagine that your project has been implemented, and has failed horribly. Identify any and all potential causes for your project’s failure.
- Classify each cause by category and whether it is in your control or not.
- Vote for the causes that you consider to be “show-stoppers” (Tervooren, 2013).
- Rate the likelihood of each cause’s occurrence.
- Develop an action plan to prevent these causes.
Conducting a premortem analysis produces better perspective-sharing, idea enrichment, and critiques, and identifies more quality risks and more quality plan changes than simply brainstorming (Gallop, Willy, & Bischoff, 2016). It also reduces overconfidence in a project plan (Veinott, Klein, & Wiggins, 2010).
“The premortem technique is a sneaky way to get people to do contrarian, devil’s advocate thinking without encountering resistance. If a project goes poorly, there will be a lessons-learned session that looks at what went wrong and why the project failed—like a medical postmortem. Why don’t we do that up front?” – Gary Klein (McKinsey & Company, 2010)
1) NOODLE & TAG: Imagine that the project has failed horribly. Identify all possible causes for the project’s failure, then categorize each by project area (e.g., people, process, technology) and whether it is in your control or not.
2) COMBINE to eliminate duplicates and move forward with only unique causes.
3) VOTE for the “show-stoppers”- those that would have a huge impact on the project.
4) RATE each cause based on the likelihood of its occurrence:
5) ACTION PLAN: Prevent the failures from occurring by developing a specific action plan.
- Bias-free and diverse analysis of all potential project issues
- Stakeholder alignment on key weaknesses in the project and how to prevent them
- Action plan to prevent failures from occurring
- Corporate culture that encourages raising issues rather than ignoring them (McKinsey & Company, 2010)
BENEFITS & IMPACT
This exercise will enable:
Quality – Reduce overconfidence and groupthink in your project plan.
Efficiency – Quickly identify high priority issues and involve all stakeholders in the process, regardless of their location.
Engagement – Involve all stakeholders and ensure everyone contributes with smart anonymity and candid discussion.
Agility – Alertness and effective response to potential issues before they occur.
Gallop, D., Willy, C., & Bischoff, J. (2016). How to catch a black swan: Measuring the benefits of the premortem technique for risk identification. Journal of Enterprise Transformation, 6(2), 87–106.
McKinsey & Company. (2010). Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut?. McKinsey Quarterly March 2010. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/strategic-decisions-when-can-you-trust-your-gut
Tervooren, T. (2013). The pre-mortem: A simple technique to save any project from failure. Riskology. https://www.riskology.co/pre-mortem-technique/
Veinott, B., Klein, G. A., & Wiggins, S. (2010). Proceedings of the 7th International ISCRAM Conference: Evaluating the effectiveness of the premortem technique on plan confidence. Seattle, USA.