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The power of the pre-mortem

The power of the pre-mortem

Nicola Hopes

31 October 2023

You’ve heard me bang on many times about the need to really learn lessons from change to get better.

All too often we merrily do the retrospective or the post-project review. BUT we don’t then encode the lessons into our processes and our thinking to avoid them next time.

Or we don’t draw on the expertise in our planning stage – either because it’s a different team, or because the people involved have moved on to another project in another organisation.

So, if:
• change is too relentless or simultaneous to learn lessons for each project,
• the lesson’s too complicated to know how you’d change the process,
• or the lesson’s too subtle to know how to incorporate it into the approach,

…then this is the shortcut for you. The pre-mortem.

Let’s fail before we fail.

The concept of a pre-mortem isn’t new, but it’s not as widely used as it should be.

‘Isn’t it just risk planning though, Nic? We all do that!’

Well, no it isn’t and here’s why.

During risk planning, the team identifies all the potential project risks and works out how to prevent them or manage them if they arise.

During a pre-mortem, however, you imagine that the project has already failed.

You put yourself in a gloomy future where you’ve gone off the rails. The project didn’t deliver. Or the cost has doubled. Or the users hate it. Or the benefits are a non-starter.

The reason this approach works is that it moves you away from hypothetical ‘what ifs’ and frees you up to really go there. It’s ultimately a more creative (and somewhat cathartic) process. And you can imagine the failure for multiple reasons.

You then use the outcomes of that discussion to foresee problems and build in the actions to prevent that imagined failure.

And in the world of virtual meetings with colleagues in any location, you don’t have to limit the pre-mortem to the current project team. You can bring a wide group of people together to imagine that failure with you. Therefore, you benefit from the organisation’s collective lessons learned to avoid the worst.

So next time you kick off a project, just take some time out to go there and do the pre-mortem. Imagining the worst can stop you experiencing the worst. And that’s always going to be worth it, right?

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