Make Better Decisions By Conducting Pre-Mortems

Ever had a project flounder or outright fail and wished that you could have foreseen the obstacles you encountered from the start? This technique will help you do exactly that. 

When you’re planning a project or a new initiative, you probably (hopefully!) do a fair amount of planning on the front end. But if that planning doesn’t include a pre-mortem, you might be decreasing your odds of success.

A pre-mortem is, as it sounds like, the opposite of a post-mortem. The idea is to imagine that it’s months down the road and the project has failed, and then work backwards to figure out why that happened. That way, you can adjust your planning now to avoid that happening.

This approach will get your team beyond the optimism that people often feel at the start of the project and invite them to think about how failure could occur, in a context that doesn’t make people feel like overly pessimistic naysayers. Plus, by directly inviting people to imagine why the project could fail, you’ll make it safe for people who might be nursing private doubts to speak up. It’s also often easier for people to voice dissent when it’s framed not as “I think X will go wrong,” but rather as, “If we’re looking for possible failure points, X could be one.”

To conduct an effective pre-mortem, follow these steps:

  1. Assemble a group of everyone who may be even remotely involved in the project. If you leave people out, you risk introducing blind spots that you won’t know about because the person who could have spotted them wasn’t included in this conversation.
  2. Brief your group on the project – what you’re doing, why, how, and what outcomes you’re aiming for.
  3. Now ask the group to imagine that the project is behind you, and that it’s failed.
  4. Have each person take a few minutes to write down every reason they can think of for why the project failed. Make it clear that there are no limits to the possible failure points that are appropriate to mention here – it could be something logistical, like a new retail site not having enough parking, to something internal like lacking enough support for the project from senior management, or even something personal, like a key person on the project needing time off to care for a sick family member.
  5. Have each person share their list with the group, while you or someone you designate takes notes on every point that’s raised.
  6. Now you have a list of possible failure points to think through and figure out how you can guard against them or neutralize them entirely.

By anticipating challenges and avoiding overconfidence at the start of your planning, you can significantly increase your chances of having projects go successfully.

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