- Learn to anticipate what could go wrong so that you can solve them before they do go wrong
- Airbnb is constantly on the lookout for any issues that might ‘take the company down’
- Premortems operate under the assumption that the worst has happened, so that you can prepare for the unpreparable.
‘What could go wrong?’ is a question you should be asking yourself and your team before starting every project. While learning from mistakes is applauded in leadership, when improving processes, a post-mortem simply isn’t enough to prevent epic fails the next time.
“Instead of exclusively looking back on what happened, why don’t we try to steer what will happen in the first place, especially for high-stakes projects with potentially costly issues?” says Willow Brugh, delivery manager at Truss. “To talk about what might go wrong, and how to adapt to it, acknowledges the possibility of failure.”
Holding regular premortems encourages creative problem-solving and creates room for agility when faced with crisis.
The big idea: Put out fires before they start
“Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the ‘patient’ has died,” says psychologist Gary Klein. “In the end, a premortem may be the best way to circumvent any need for a painful post-mortem.”
For the meeting to work, everyone involved needs to be there in person. “This process will not work via email. A live chat could work, but it will be cumbersome. Video chats would be the next best solution,” says Tyler Tervooren, founder of Riskology.
“It sounds depressing but putting big problems out in the open is actually quite a relief. When you’re working on a high-stakes project, no elephant should be left in the room.”
What’s in it for you: The project has a higher chance of success
Big projects come with big risks, and there’s never a guarantee of success. A premortem will help you identify things that will go wrong that you couldn’t even anticipate.
Airbnb has seen great success by improving its premortem process. The company asks their teams to consider all the ways that the company could ‘go down’, and in the years since this mindset shift, the business has seen increasingly positive results as issues are dealt with before they happen.
“Taking a few hours to go through the pre-mortem process is a wise investment for any project that’s important to you,” says Tervooren. “Once you’ve done it, you can go to bed each night knowing all your bases are covered. Don’t underestimate the value of peace of mind.”
Make it happen
3 Simple steps to conducting a premortem for any project you’re leading:
- List every possible problem you may encounter. Whether it’s on paper or a whiteboard, spend an hour writing down every potential issue that could derail your project.
- Select the top ten possibilities and remove any problems you have no control over, before you move onto your main focus: Finding solutions.
- Create a proactive solution for current issues on the list and establish a backup plan for potential setbacks.