Ali Girard

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Toolkit Review: Project Premortem

What is the tool?
According to the Harvard Business Review, a project premortem is “the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem.” The project team operates under the assumption that the patient (the project) has “died” and must determine what went wrong. The purpose of the exercise is is to help the project team more completely and accurately identify risks at the outset.

How did I use it?
The project was just starting up, and there was some team tension around roles and scope. It stemmed from the fact that everyone wanted to do a good job, but everyone had a different idea about how to do a good job. We held an in-person workshop to address this tension and started with an hour dedicated to the premortem exercise.

How successful was it?
In my opinion, very successful. We generated nine “death” scenarios and, in discussing what might cause them, discovered a number of shared potential issues. From that, the team could see that there was greater alignment than they had originally believed. When I asked for immediate feedback following the exercise, one participant offered this thought: “This meeting had the potential to be tense and involve a lot of emotion. I liked that this exercise let us step away from that emotion and explore the outcomes we do and don’t want.” Essentially, the tool enabled people to openly express concerns without making accusations or raising tension further. Through the process of writing down those concerns we could see our project success criteria, scope and project & change management approach begin to take shape.

What would I change?
The next time I use this tool, I will be more clear at the outset that we are talking about failures that are within our realm of control. It was to easy to get caught up on failures caused by uncontrollable external factors that we might encounter, but could not avoid through our own planning (e.g. potential leadership transitions).

When would I pull this out of my toolkit?

  • Project kick-off or re-launch
  • When there is a conflict over the approach to take
  • When there’s a lack of alignment about what success “looks like”
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