Pre-mortem: how to anticipate failure with prospective hindsight

Most people are familiar with post-mortem documentation, where team members come together at the conclusion of a project to record what went well and what didn’t. Fewer people have performed a pre-mortem before the start of a project.

A pre-mortem is an exercise where we imagine that a project has failed, and where we work backward to determine what could have led to the failure. It is a powerful tool to facilitate second-level thinking and to foster honest conversations.

The power of prospective hindsight

We are especially prone to overconfidence at the very beginning of a project, where we don’t know what we don’t know. A pre-mortem is a way to manage our optimism bias by projecting ourselves in a future where the project has already failed.

Gary Klein came up with the concept of the pre-mortem in the September 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review. He explains: “Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the pre-mortem operates on the assumption that the patient has died, and so asks what did go wrong.”

The pre-mortem is a way to think long-term and to bring your future self in the conversation so you can avoid temporal discounting, where we make decisions in the present without taking future consequences into account.

It is also a way to avoid groupthink, where consensus emerges not because everyone agrees, but because it is more comfortable or less risky for people to not openly disagree. A pre-mortem allows team members to safely share “every reason they can think of for the failure—especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic,” writes Gary Klein.

How to perform a pre-mortem

Performing a pre-mortem does not need to be a long and complicated process. One meeting at the beginning of a project should be enough to uncover many blind spots, and to put everyone in a mindset that will set the project for success.

Even if you don’t uncover every single blind spot—there will always be elements outside of your control—a pre-mortem will help manage the team’s fear of failure, foster open communication, and encourage the right balance of optimism and healthy skepticism.

Pre-mortem steps

Here are the steps to perform a pre-mortem:

  1. Review the brief. Discuss the goals of the project and the current plan. Explain the roles, and responsibilities among the team. Answer any questions about the aims and constraints of the project. This part can happen in a separate meeting before the actual pre-mortem so people have time to digest the information.
  2. Set the scene. Ask the team to project themselves in the future. The project is over, and it has spectacularly failed. Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong.
  3. Brainstorm individually. Each team member then spends the next few minutes writing down all the potential reasons the project might have failed. As mentioned earlier, the fact that the project is supposed to have failed already makes it easier to share ideas openly.
  4. Share and discuss. Then, go around the table, asking each team member to share one reason the project might have failed from their list. The obvious ones do not necessarily need to be discussed, but make sure to ask for clarification for the most complex reasons.
  5. Review and improve the plan. After the meeting, compile a list of all reasons the project might fail that have been shared in the pre-mortem meeting, and review the plan in order to adjust it accordingly.

A pre-mortem is generally performed as a team, but if you are a solo entrepreneur or working on a project on your own, you can adapt these steps to uncover your blind spots and better anticipate failure. However, using prospective hindsight is easier as a group, so consider bringing a friend on board to help you imagine potential sources of failure when you start a new project.

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