Premortem on Projects: How to Do It & Why


You might have heard of a postmortem. It’s a meeting after the project has concluded, during which successes and failures are discussed with the project team. It’s a great way to learn from your mistakes and repeat those actions that worked as planned.

The problem with a postmortem is it’s after the fact. Yes, it’s very helpful in setting up your next project to stay on track. But what about if you had one prior to initiating a new project?

Project managers know the risks inherent in any project. They spend time considering what might go wrong and setting up a plan to respond to those risks. Risk management is important, of course, but there’s an even more rigorous process that can be done to make sure the project stays on schedule, under budget and delivers quality. That process is called a premortem.

What Is a Premortem?

A premortem is when a team imagines their project has failed. That’s before it’s even started. It sounds negative, but it’s just a strategy that allows the project team to work backward from that point of failure to determine what might have caused the failure.

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The discussions exploring the potential failures are kept positive, with the goal being solely the identification of issues that caused the project to get derailed. The project manager then analyzes the various scenarios and their likelihood and takes preventative action to avoid such events from occurring over the life cycle of the project.

Note the difference between a premortem and a typical risk assessment or critique. In the latter, there is the assumption that this or that might go wrong. However, with a premortem, the team is operating on the assumption that something did happen. It’s not approached as an abstraction.

Benefits and Risks

If this sounds like science-fiction, there is research to back it up. A Harvard Business Review article noted a 1989 study conducted by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School, Jay Russo, of Cornell and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, which found that when one image something has already happened it improves the chance of correctly finding reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent. That’s what a premortem does.

There is the danger, of course, that the premortem identifies threats or weaknesses that are not real. Then the preventative measures stemming from this falsehood can drive a wedge into the proper execution of the project.

But the benefits of a premortem done properly are great. It offers a perspective often missing from a pre-launch risk analysis, in that it is not designed to only identify potential problems before they happen. It also makes those who are overinvested in the project lose a bit of their dangerous gung ho attitude. And, as noted early, it gives everyone a voice and respects their input. Everyone can learn from one another and are sensitive to capturing issues before they turn into problems.

How to Do a Premortem on a Project

So, how do you reap the benefits of a premortem without suffering the dangers? Begin by looking at it as you would a team-building exercise. In a sense, it will tighten the bonds of your team as they explore the coming project as if it was finished and failed. Therefore, the activity is not only practical in terms of better planning but also solidifies your team, making them more productive.

  • Prepare: Before you start, make sure the entire team has been briefed on the project plan. Then an assigned leader tells the team that the project has failed. This leader is not necessarily the project manager, though it could be. However, it is recommended to add the project manager to the team for their unique perspective.
  • Why Did the Project Fail? Give the team an hour or more to sit in groups and brainstorm every possibility as to why the project failed or, if you prefer, have them do so individually. Tell them to be as imaginative as they can. Have them write it down. Any idea is worth collecting, even if there’s a fear it’s impolite. No one will be punished for their reasoning if it’s serious. This is not the time to feel threatened or hold back.
  • Share Your Reason: The leader asks each group or individual to share only one of their reasons for the project failure. The next person reads their reason, but it must be a different one from those that proceeded it. These reasons are listed on a document or spreadsheet.
  • Review & Revise: The project manager takes this list and reviews all the various reasons for the project failure and uses this information to strengthen the existing project plan.

Premortem Best Practices

There are other things that can enhance these four basic steps of a well-done premortem.  For one, don’t generalize. Always be as specific as possible when airing your reasons for the project failure. But don’t use this exercise as a forum to vent or settle scores. All points must be practical and actionable.

Also, project managers can assign owners to each of the priority reasons and those team members will lead the task of finding solutions. These responses should consider the risks, opportunities and existing plans and how they’ll impact them.

Premortem vs Postmortem

It’s important to note that a premortem and a postmortem are not mutually exclusive. They’re two sides of the same coin, and both serve a valuable purpose in leading a winning project.

A project management postmortem is a way to dissect the finished project and see what went wrong, so steps can be taken in the next project to avoid the same results. The difference, obviously, is the premortem is a theoretical failure before the project starts and a postmortem is after the close of the project.

Unlike in medicine, a postmortem doesn’t necessarily mean that the project failed. It might have, but a postmortem can also follow a successful end of the project. That’s because every project has its share of wrong turns and misadventures, which a postmortem examines to figure out how not to make the same mistakes twice.

Together, a premortem and a postmortem are helpful tools for understanding the underlying currents in a project and how they carry it one way or the other. The more knowledge you have of what makes your project tick, the more likely you can run it like clockwork.

ProjectManager Can Implement Premortem Lessons

When dealing with this much information, it’s always helpful to have a tool to help organize the data. ProjectManager can create a project in which the results of the premortem are collected in an online Gantt chart that can be shared with team members.

Gantt Charts for Planning

ProjectManager’s online Gantt chart is also helpful in that project managers can assign tasks to specific team members, who can then communicate at the task level, as well as attach relevant files and images. As plans change, that process can be tracked and monitored.

ProjectManager's Gantt chart

Task Lists for Productivity

Another task management tool that ProjectManager features is a task list that improves productivity and allows team members to stay on track. It can be viewed as a personal task list or across the entire project. These task lists can also filter by date, owner, project and more.

ProjectManager's task list

Kanban Boards for Execution and Collaboration

Tasks can also be viewed on ProjectManager as kanban boards, which provide a visualization of the workflow. The boards are broken down into columns, usually defining what needs to be done, what is being done and what is done. Under each of these columns-heads are cards, which are individual tasks. The card can also collect the ways the project team came up to solve the project failure in the premortem.

A screenshot of the Kanban board project view

Each card has a timeline to note progress and can be marked by project, type, priority, due date, etc. There is room for a description, as well as a place to upload documents, spreadsheets or images. The cards can also be assigned to one or more team members, with a dialogue box to capture any questions or ongoing conversation from the team.

Premortem is another tool to keep you project on track. ProjectManager, a cloud-based project management software, is like a Swiss Army Knife of tools with all the features you need to lead a project to a successful closure. From planning with our online Gantt chart to managing and monitoring workflow with kanban boards and reporting with a real-time dashboard, every phase of your project is covered. See what it can do by taking this free 30-day trial today.

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