So what is a PreMortem?

PreMortem knowledge sharing

If you chat to me I will go on and on about the amazing world of PreMortems but what is a PreMortem. A PreMortem is an exploration into how a project could fail carried out in the planning stage of a project. A close cousin of the futurespective from Agile. Sibling of the Post Mortem.

A little history

Gary Klein is the author who documented the PreMortem concept in his book ‘The power of intuition’. He focuses on the ability of the PreMortem to raise the intuition about projects during the planning stage. PreMortems are nothing new. Risk assessments, risk analysis, risk evaluations etc have been around for a very long time.

The difference is how the assessment is made. Risk assessments use the likelihood, frequency and severity of risks. Leading to the slowing down of decisions as groups get bogged down in assigning numbers. PreMortems assess using the experience, intuition and knowledge of the people involved in the workshop. The sharing of the groups’ knowledge aims to grow the groups’ ability to see what will happen before it happens and act.

Why do a PreMortem?

PreMortems run in the kickoff meeting or in the planning stage of the project. The purpose is to find key vulnerabilities in the project plan. The participants try to anticipate a plan’s weakness through mental simulation. Then brainstorm ways to counter the weaknesses. Raising the intuition of the group so they can produce better plans and avoid pitfalls.

How does it run?

The method below is set out in Gary Klein’s book. The workshop runs as part of another meeting or independently.  Before running the PreMortem, I run through what project success is for each of the participants. Similar PreMortem methods are available on the Atlassian website or the KaiZone has a great pdf guide.

Step 1: Preparation

Before the PreMortem, participants should be familiar with the project plan and ‘the who, what, why, when and how’ established. A safe environment established for the participants to feel confident in sharing. Supplies for documenting and sharing are available. Also, the overview of the process shared.

Step 2: Imagine a fiasco

The participants imagine the project has failed spectacularly. The team isn’t speaking to each other. The customers are angry and disappointed. Things have gone as wrong as they possibly could. Asking the participants ‘What could have caused this?’

Step 3: Generate reasons for failure

The participants spend 3 minutes writing down all the reasons why they believe the failure occurred. Each person has different experiences bringing unique perspectives.

Step 4: Consolidate the lists

The reasons for the failures are read out and the similar ones grouped together. Using a whiteboard or by using post-it notes to share with the group. Whatever works for the group. At the end of this step, you will have a comprehensive list of the concerns.

Step 5: Revisit the project plan

The participants decide the two or three items of greatest concern. Addressing these in the workshop. Another meeting scheduled to discuss ideas for avoiding or minimising the other problems

Step 6: Periodically review the list

The list is an active document. Reviewing and updating the list keeps the presence of failure fresh and sensitises the team to problems that may be emerging.

The bonus outcomes

By the nature of the way, the PreMortem process is carried out. There are some bonus outcomes

  1. It gives a voice to the voiceless.
  2. Avoids groupthink and/or HiPPO dominance (check out this post for more info on HiPPOs)
  3. Celebrates independent thought
  4. Increases understanding of other team members, their views and expectations
  5. Heightens awareness to other possible issues throughout the project


To extend the PreMortem, I like to run a positive scenario. Instead of imagining a fiasco in Step 2, the participants imagine an extremely successful project. Asking the same question, ‘What caused this?’ The reasons are written down. The plan reviewed and updated if required to make the project be successful.

Want to know more?

Check out these links

Think you would like someone to facilitate a PreMortem for you

Get in contact to discuss the best option for your team and project.