How to conduct a premortem – and increase your chances of success

Want to increase the chances of success for an idea or project? Find out why you need to conduct a premortem and look for problems before they happen.

I’m quite partial to a podcast, and two of my favourites for business-related insights are The Journal by the Wall Street Journal and Freakonomics Radio. It was on the latter that I listened to an episode this morning on how to succeed at failing, exploring the concept of extreme resilience.

One guest on the show was Gary Klein, the chief scientist of Klein Associates and author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions and Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights.

Klein introduced the idea of a ‘premortem’, and I thought it was so simple yet powerful that I wanted to share it more widely, in case you find it helpful too. Read on to learn what a premortem is, why it works and how to conduct one in your business.

What is a premortem?

A premortem (also known as a pre-mortem) is a business strategy that tries to identify all the reasons why something may fail, before it happens.

It is the opposite to a postmortem, where you try to identify what has gone wrong after it has happened. For example, in a medical setting, a postmortem looks for the cause of death.

Why is a premortem important?

The idea behind a premortem is that you predict any potential issues an idea, project or strategy may come up against, and identify solutions or workarounds to prevent them from happening – and therefore increasing the likelihood of success.

So why does it work so well? One reason is that it actually invites people to voice worries and doubts. It also levels the playing field by asking everyone to participate, even junior people whose opinions may not usually be sought or hold any weight.

And both of these are important. Often, when we’re planning a new strategy or project, we are more inclined to optimism. We want it to succeed, so turn our thoughts to ways we can help it do so. Our minds don’t naturally want to look for reasons it might fail – that can be demotivating.

This very human tendency discourages members of a team from speaking out if they have suspicions it might not work, because they don’t want to be seen as negative, or not team-spirited.

By asking everyone to assume the project has already failed, and giving them permission to come up with reasons why, you encourage people to consider and voice worries in a safe environment. Suddenly pointing out a potential problem is positive, rather than negative, and this can have a transformative effect on the outcome.

How a premortem saved an Air Force project

In the Freakonomics podcast episode, Gary Klein tells the story of a time he conducted a premortem on an important Air Force project, a new software tool, at the end of a two-day meeting.

Throughout the meeting a young Captain in the group had said nothing. But, when asked for his premortem ideas, he finally spoke up. He explained that the people in the field who would be using the new software had low-powered laptops, however the tool they were building ran on a super computer that took 48 hours. He couldn’t see how it could work.

Klein said there was silence in the room after the Captain spoke because everybody realised he was right. Then someone else spoke up and said they had a ‘back of the envelope’ technique that they used that could be a shortcut that would solve the problem.

That meeting saved the project (the shortcut worked). But that Captain, one of the most junior people in the room, would never have spoken up if not directly asked for his reasons why the project may fail.

This demonstrates the importance of actively asking for the honest feedback of everyone involved on a project, and rewarding problem-seeking, not punishing it. And a premortem gives you a simple but powerful structure to facilitate this.

How does a premortem work?

So how can you conduct a premortem on an idea, project or strategy? It’s a simple exercise. Here’s what Klein recommends.

At the end of a planning meeting, when the project or idea is almost ready to launch, you ask your team to imagine it’s six months or a year into the future (or whatever time period is relevant), and the project has failed spectacularly.

Ask them to spend two minutes writing down all the reasons why it failed. Then go around the room one by one, starting with the project lead, and ask everyone to share one thing from their list.

Go around the table as many times as you need until you have made a note of all the reasons. After the meeting, the project lead should review the list and look for ways they can strengthen the plan.

Here’s the process for a premortem in six simple steps:

  1. Conduct the exercise at the end of a planning meeting
  2. Ask everyone to imagine the project has already failed
  3. Give them two minutes to write all the reasons why it failed
  4. Ask everyone to read one idea in turn until finished
  5. Make a note of all reasons given
  6. Review the list and look for ideas to strengthen the project

A premortem can prevent the need for a postmortem

I hope you have found this concept as helpful as I have. By conducting a premortem, you can identify weaknesses in a plan that may otherwise never come to light in time. And you have the opportunity to revise your strategy to avoid these weak points.

Ultimately, the hope is that a premortem will increase your likelihood of success… and avoid the need for a painful postmortem after a failed launch.

Love more helpful business strategies and tools?

I love discovering new strategies and tools that will save me time and enable me to run a smarter, more successful business. Here are some more I recommend: