Your project is dead—long live your project! How to reduce project failure through pre-mortems

By Nicholas Gracilla  ·   June 11, 2014  ·  2 minute read

How can we gain the insights of a post-mortem, before a project has even started?

Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist and author of Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Way We Gain Insights, was recently on the Freakonomics podcast episode Failure Is Your Friend. The episode is the second of a two part series, investigating how we think about failure and how in many cases failure can just what you need to free up better opportunities.

I was particularly struck by Klein’s pre-mortem method for making better project decisions. He calls it prospective hindsight, and it helps generate explanations for future events, as if they had already happened. Some research suggests the shift in perspective can improve a team’s ability to predict the reasons for future outcomes by 30%. 

We’re all familiar with a post-mortem—now that the patient is dead, what when wrong?  And ostensibly, how can we prevent that from happening again? In a pre-mortem, a team imagines themselves into the future. A horrible future, one six months (or so) down the road where the project has absolutely, completely, and utterly failed. No hope for rescue and no escaping the truth: the project is dead, failed, and over. In this mindset, the team then writes out why that happened. What caused the project to fail? 

There’s a critical difference between this mindset and asking, “let’s talk: what might go wrong with this project?” By asserting the counterfactual truth (this project has failed) team members can voice concerns they normally might not be able to bring up. 

In the end, we spent about four minutes thinking about why the project failed, with each team member writing reasons out on a single card. We then exchanged cards and read them out loud. Mixed in with some real risks and concerns were some great moments of levity, too.  Hopefully this doesn’t happen to our next project:

For the more realistic concerns, we asked ourselves what we could do today, at the start of the project, to address the risk. In the end, the pre-mortem is an easy to execute and fresh approach to risk management that has provided us with real insights. As a team we’re thinking about ways to address them now, at the start of a project, and to alert our clients as well.