Gary Klein (2003) articulated the idea of a pre-mortem as a way to improve a project’s chances of success. While a post-mortem looks at an event or project after it’s happened to understand what led to success or failure, a pre-mortem approach involves asking team members to imagine failure and what might cause it. The team is freed to air concerns. In fact, they’re specifically asked to do so. With issues clearly on the table, the next step is to identify strategies to mitigate the risk that any of these failure modes will actually happen.
The steps of a pre-mortem
Setting the stage: Before a pre-mortem, all team members should come to the table being familiar with the basic project plan. What are the goals? What tasks are going to be undertaken to get the project moving? Which groups are involved? Dependent on each other? At the pre-mortem meeting, a facilitator should give a quick briefing to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Step 1. Imagine a fiasco
Ask team members to imagine they have a crystal ball. In it they see that the plan has failed. Not just a little but catastrophically.
Step 2. Generate reasons for failure
Here, team members are asked to imagine why the project will fail. This is the step where you let team members give their inner skeptics free rein. To keep team members from being inhibited, ask them to use post-its and take a few moments of silent reflection as they write down their concerns.
Step 3. Share the list of reasons why the project might fail
One way to do this is to go around the room and have each person read one item from their list. A facilitator can record reasons on a whiteboard or flip chart. When you’ve gone around the room once, repeat the process until everyone’s completed reading from their lists. Depending on team dynamics, you might collect concerns written out on post-its, and have the facilitator read them out to preserve anonymity.
Step 4. Identify the top concerns
What concerns are really resonating with team members? Prioritize these. You’ll want to make sure you address these. Team members should then brainstorm strategies for mitigating these risks for failure.
Rinse and repeat
This process can and should be repeated at various stages of the project to keep it on track.
Keeping the pre-mortem from turning into a post-mortem
Although it sounds like this could create an atmosphere of negativity, team morale usually goes up because team members feel heard. However, the crucial point is not to stop at listing failures but to take time to think hard about possible ways to mitigate risk and then back those approaches up with the necessary people, time, and things needed for those approaches to be successful. If a “solutions” meeting isn’t on the table that day for timing reasons, it’s important to schedule that meeting soon after the pre-mortem. You don’t want people to leave pre-mortem meetings as skeptics, feeling that they’ve been given an opportunity to speak but have no real opportunities to have their concerns addressed.
How an instructional designer/performance consultant can help
Pre-mortems create good opportunities for instructional designers/performance consultants to get a view of desired optimals, current actuals, and the gaps between them. Some of these gaps may be at least partially addressed through informal learning solutions, performance support tools, and more formalized instructional efforts (whether online, face-to-face, or via some blended approach). Typically, a systems’ challenge needs a systems approach which needs a systems solution.
By using this technique before a project gets well underway, the performance solution can be proactive rather than reactive.
Gary Klein (2003). The Power of Intuition. New York: Doubleday. pp. 98–101