Premortem Now!

Apparently, one of the greatest learning experiences a chess player can have occurs once a game is lost. It’s called a postmortem analysis. And it’s hard, miserable work because a player is sitting there with a pile of negative emotions and they have to think through the reasons why they lost…one hateful move at a time. Why is this so important? Because our mistakes have the potential to teach us far more than our successes.

From this concept comes the notion of a “premortem”. Which is about getting the benefits of a project’s postmortem analysis well before said project has the chance to fail.

Let’s say your organization in on the verge of a very large project. You’re heading into some significant technological changes which will impact people and processes that have been in place for a very long time. There are so many unknowns that it makes people’s heads spin. How do you make sure groupthink doesn’t prevent critical issues from being resolved ahead of time?

In a word: premortem. Key stakeholders sit around a table and pretend as if the project failed. It went down in flames. The budget was busted. None of the deployments went as planned. Significant damage done and nothing to show for it. At this point you might do a pretend ‘blame game’. Who is to blame for the fact that this project did not succeed?

Which team didn’t do their part? Who didn’t communicate risk the way they were supposed to? What assumptions were made? Or what perceptions did the various teams have of the project? How could we let this happen? Didn’t anyone see those issues coming?

Pretending that a project went the way of Hades is a great way to invite honest discussion without relying on someone to play the role of naysayer. Let’s face it, no one wants to be accused of being overly negative. “Are you on board with this project are not?” A premortem analysis requires that everyone discuss the death of the project and “what went wrong” not whether it will go wrong . This prevents pitting the “positive people” against the “negative people”.

Even the thought of doing a premortem analysis can cause some folks to feel anxious. Why is this? Is it because it is a lot easier to keep moving than to stop and ask critical questions? Sometimes critical questions lead to uncovering critical issues. Will asking critical questions lead to more work? Will this make an already tight timeline even tighter? No one wants more stress so it’s best to just keep….on…going. Or is it?

I’d like to offer that the time to do a premortem analysis is now. Take a moment amidst planning and discussion meetings to pretend that the project never made it off the ground. Work out all the reasons it failed. Because we can all learn mightily mistakes. And what could be better than learning from mistakes before they happen?