How to conduct effective premortems

3 minute read

I’m a fan of conducting pre-mortems before projects since they help pre-empt problems. Gary Klein, Paul Sonkin, and Paul Johnson discuss common mistakes and how to conduct these better in this paper

A premortem is simply a method for identifying potential flaws in a plan. It works by having the team imagine that the plan has failed and identify the reasons for its assumed failure. A premortem enables problem finding and encourages candor between team members.

What are the benefits of a premortem?

The primary benefit of a premortem is to identify inherent weaknesses in a plan or investment thesis before it is implemented. premortems usually surface potential problems that had not occurred (or were not identified) to other members of the team, especially to the team leader

A secondary benefit is that a premortem reduces overconfidence

Third, the premortem fosters a culture of candor, which is usually its most important benefit.

Everyone likes to assume that things will go exactly as planned despite noone actually believing they will. Premortems are a fantastic way to discover previously unanticipated problems, particularly issues that a “lower ranking” team member might be hesitant to raise. By reducing the barrier to contributing, team members feel that their opinions will be listened to and not brushed off.

Johnson, Sonkin, and Klein go on to discuss five conditions that make premortems effective:

Problem reframing. The goal of the premortem is to allow the group to identify weaknesses, poor assumptions or hidden risks associated with a plan or an idea. Research shows that it is easier to find reasons for why something has happened as opposed to developing different scenarios for things that might happen

A cognitively diverse crowd or group. The wider the group’s expertise and experience, the wider will be the range of suggested causes of the plan’s failure.

Psychological safety. To get the most out of a premortem, the facilitator needs to create an environment that eliminates or reduces social pressures present in “normal” group dynamics, which is referred to as creating “psychological safety.”

Group “equality.” It is critically important to have “equal” participation from each team member

Sense of urgency. It is critical that the premortem follow a rapid pace to avoid paralysis that often comes from too much group discussion and superficial analysis

A common theme across these is to ensure the outlier diverse viewpoint gets heard. Most work culture encourages people to speak up and voice their opinion, and I still believe that’s the preferable way for and individual to get ahead in their careers. However, this culture that gives more weight to more aggressive personalities also results in neglect of more passive personalities that could contribute critical knowledge. How often have you been in a project meeting where there are multiple people talking over each other in an attempt to prove their status while the real expert feels awkward at speaking up?

They also discuss common mistakes:

Mistake 1: Asking the group, “What can go wrong?”. […] The essence of the premortem is the firm assertion at the beginning that the plan has gone horribly wrong. It has failed. No equivocation. The reframing is critical in shifting the group’s mindset.

Mistake 2: Allowing a slow, overly contemplative pace […] By allowing group members only a few minutes to write down everything that comes to mind forces greater response spontaneity

Mistake 3: Asking for volunteers. Asking for volunteers tells everyone that they can lay back and not participate, and often allows the most vocal group members to dominate the discussion. That atmosphere is not ideal for the process to be effective. Instead, everyone must participate and share their ideas.

Mistake 4: Having one of the group participants initiate the process. […] The premortem demands honesty and candor, starting with the team leader setting the tone.

Mistake 5: Letting team members present more than one item from their list or dominating the discussion before moving to the next group member

I’ve made mistake 1 before, so this was a good reminder for me to review the premortem process. The rest of the mistakes seem to have the intent of increasing democratic participation among all members of the group, which aligns with the theme we just discussed above.

I love premortems and scenario planning since they help align expectations and get buy in from everyone involved. I think they should be a part of every major project plan. The next time I conduct them I’ll be keeping the above pointers in mind.

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