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Preventing Painful Postmortems

When a project ends up being a disaster, teams will sometimes do a “postmortem” afterwards to determine what caused the mess. They may look for lessons they can learn from what transpired, or red flags they should have been more aware of at the time. The goal in all this is to avoid unnecessary pain in the future.

Learning from our mistakes or misjudgments in hindsight can certainly be helpful for the next time. But what if we could gain the same insight at the beginning of the project, instead of waiting till it’s complete?

In a 2007 Harvard Business Review article, Gary Klein proposes the idea of doing project “premortems.”1. The proposal stemmed from research showing that imagining an event had already occurred—prospective hindsight—increased the ability to identify reasons for that future outcome. So, instead of waiting till the end of a project to evaluate what went wrong, a team could start the project by imagining themselves doing a future postmortem, and reap similar benefits in the process.

A premortem is done by first asking the team to imagine themselves in the future (e.g. 6, 12, 18 months down the road) and the project has turned out to be a disaster. With that in mind, everyone on the team individually lists as many plausible answers to the question, “What went wrong?” They then each share the items on their lists until every single reason has been discussed. This is more than simply doing standard risk analysis of what might go wrong. Rather, it starts with the (imagined) reality that things have gone wrong, the project is dead, and now it’s time to do the autopsy.

This kind of exercise not only gives the team specific things to plan for, but can promote a freer, more candid discussion, about things that could derail the project. In normal conditions, some team members may be hesitant to share their real concerns for fear of being seen as negative or impolitic. Imagining that the project has already failed can help remove some of these barriers, since the objective is simply to come up with plausible explanations for the failure. It can also temper overenthusiastic supporters of the project, and force them to work through realistic threats. Finally, once the project gets started, the team will be better motivated to deal with issues that come up since they already know the damage these issues could lead to if left unchecked.

Although this concept was originally geared for business teams, it could have personal application as well. If you have a project or habit you’re starting, take a moment to imagine that a few months from now it’s already fallen apart. Now think though, Why? Why did it fail? Because being aware of these very real obstacles can help you plan and act accordingly.

Envisioning “success” instead of failure may be more enjoyable to do, but truly grappling with what would take a project down can help provide the strategy needed to actually get where you want to go. Doing a premortem may not always be fun. But isn’t it better to make the mistakes in your head instead of in real life, when it comes time to do the work? That, and a premortem sure beats doing a painful postmortem later.


  1. I saw this article first referenced in Daniel Pink’s, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing [return]

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