The Premortem Is the New Postmortem
Before you set your next goal or begin your next project, STOP. There’s one exercise I like to do that significantly increases my chances of not only meeting, but exceeding, my expectations.
It’s called a “premortem.”
Most of us are familiar with postmortem meetings—they come right after finishing a project or hitting a milestone. We use this time to reflect on mistakes made, battles won, and what we can learn to improve moving forward. Postmortems are great, and you should continue doing them, but there is one very big problem: it happens after the project is finished.
A premortem begins by imagining the worst: you didn’t meet your goal. Think about your goal a few weeks, months, or years from now, and imagine that you didn’t meet it. Something happened. Name that something. In a premortem, you anticipate what could go wrong so you can mitigate errors or negative influence before you it happens.
I learned this technique during my Business Analyst apprenticeship at Sustainable Evolution Inc. Before starting a project or setting a goal for myself, my mentor, Andy Ruth, would ask me, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
The first time, I thought the question was rhetorical. I smiled and said, “I don’t know,” and then I stumbled over my words, “I won’t know until I try?” And then there was an awkward pause.
Honestly, the question made me feel uncomfortable. What’s the worst that could happen? Uhhh… I fail? We had talked about failure, a lot—like, a lot, a lot—and I’m prepared to fail and I’m open to feedback. What is he getting at? Is this a test?
Finally, I said, “I’m prepared to fail and accept feedback. (Pause.) Ok. (Pause.) I’m good to go ahead and do this? (Pause.) Right? (Pause.) Andy?”
Andy cleared his throat and shifted in his chair—this meant I was missing the point.
“I want you to think about what could go wrong at each step in the process. This is a little different from being open to feedback and responding to failure. Thinking about the worst-case does two things. First, it prepares you for failure, as we’ve already discussed, so you can change your plan, quickly; second, and more importantly, you identify the things that will throw you off course. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and only see trees and miss the forest (the project as a whole). When you lose the broad perspective, you risk getting blindsided. Doing the work now will remind you to look for those pits and dead ends so when they come—and they will come—you can avoid them. You already know that no matter how much planning you do, something is going to disrupt it. What you can do NOW is minimize the failures you are aware of, giving you more control.”
It was starting to make sense. In asking, “What’s the worst that could happen,” Andy wasn’t trying to psych me out and scare me away from the project, or even trying to give me a boost of confidence by asking it rhetorically. No, he wanted me to actually name potential problems before they arose, which gave me control over them, empowering me to succeed.
Andy walked through the steps with me:
Premortem Goal Planning
- State Clearly What You Plan to Do.
Ok,” Andy said. “What exactly are you doing? Define it. Why is this such a good idea and why is it going to work?”
In this first step, name everything you are going to do so you achieve your goal on time, on target, and on budget.
- Flip the Tables and Ask: Why Is This Going to Fail?
“Let’s say you worked really hard and you put a lot of time, money, and effort into your goal. What does the worst case look like to you? Let’s start with the first benchmark. In two weeks we’re sitting here and you still haven’t made any progress. What happened?
In this step, you ask: Why am I going to fail? This is your time to be your own best devil’s advocate. What is going to get in your way? Be honest. Poke holes in your plan, and name all the things that could make it fail.
- Create a Preventive Action Plan.
“You found your weaknesses. Great!” Andy said, pausing for dramatic effect. “Now, how are you going to accommodate for them?”
In the last step, you make a preventative action plan. Now that you know the weaknesses in your plan, how are you going to keep an eye on them so they don’t disrupt your project? Think of some checks and balances you can put in place to monitor those weaknesses throughout the duration of your project.
Do this again for each anticipated milestone—for example, at two weeks, one month, two months, three months—until you accomplish your goal or finish your project.
Knowing how to plan a premortem is a must-have skill in the Age of Agility. Too often, we react to failure or disruptions instead of anticipating them. A premortem isn’t responding to failure like a postmortem—a premortem anticipates risks so failure can be mitigated before you encounter it.
When you think about what could happen and anticipate wrong turns, you reduce the chance of failure. When you learn the names of your demons, you control them instead of them controlling you.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.email@example.com and on Twitter @andrewjwilt