Pre-Mortem Exercise:  A Step-by-Step Guide

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At the end of a project, there is often an autopsy (or Post-Mortem) to analyze what went right and what went wrong. But what if you could perform this analysis at the start of the project to gain agreement on goals and anticipate problems?

There is a way to do this and many organizations have started to implement this through an exercise called a Pre-Mortem that User Experience teams and their product and business stakeholders can do together to imagine a time when the project is complete and what they did and what they didn’t do over the life of the project.

A Pre-Mortem can be a fun exercise, can be done in as little as an hour, and gets everyone to focus on what will be necessary for the project to succeed – and what risks need to be addressed to avoid failure. 

There are many possible Pre-Mortem variations, but this is one I’ve had some success with at Project Kickoff meetings:

Exercise 1 – We succeeded!

  1. Set up the exercise by emphasizing its fun-and-games aspect, saying, “Let’s imagine the time is X months in the future. The project is complete and it has been a roaring success. Everyone is getting a raise. People on the project are getting promoted. Awards are being handed out. And it is so successful that the project is on the cover of a magazine. Your job over the next 5 minutes is to sketch that magazine cover with the magazine name, an image, a headline, and three bullet points for what our project accomplished from your point of view. Essentially, what did we accomplish to get all the recognition I just described?  Have some fun with this and then we’ll present our magazine covers.”
    (Emphasize to participants that in order to get awards, raises, etc., your accomplishments have to be significant. Delivering on time and on budget is admirable, but is not likely to earn team members the recognition of executive leadership.) (2 minutes)
  2. Pass out a paper or digital template and ask participants to sketch their magazine cover. (5 minutes)
  3. Ask participants to post their magazine covers (on a whiteboard or virtually). (1 minute)
  4. Ask participants to review the magazine covers. (5 minutes)
  5. Then ask some individuals to present their magazine covers. (5 minutes)
  6. Discuss the bullet point failures on the magazine covers as individual items and themes. Ask for clarification, as necessary. (5 minutes)   
  7. Compile a list of the bullet points (a secondary facilitator can do this during the discussion).
  8. Allow each participant three votes for the most impactful accomplishments. (5 minutes)

Point out that only impactful accomplishments will result in the team and the organization to consider the project to be “wildly” successful.

Now you have agreed-upon impactful project goals that can be added to the project plan.

As the project is executed, everyone on the project can ask, “How does this decision affect our ability to accomplish our most impactful project goals?”

Defining the goals will help anchor the decision-making to the original vision and keep everyone – designers, product managers, and stakeholders – focused on the items identified as necessary for project success.

Then, you flip the exercise on its head.

Exercise 2 – We failed!

  1. Set up the exercise by saying, “Let’s imagine the time is X months in the future.  The project is shut down, unfinished, and it has been a debacle. Everyone on the team is looking to leave the company. People are getting demoted. It is such a disaster that the project is on the cover of a magazine for all the wrong reasons. Your job over the next 5 minutes is to sketch that magazine cover with the magazine name, an image, a headline, and three bullet points for what went wrong. Have some fun with this – it hasn’t happened yet – and then we’ll present our magazine covers. Consider what you know about our organization, where projects have run into problems in the past, and what are the unknowns. Ask what are the concerns from your point of view. Also, bring in your experience at other organizations you’ve worked at.” (5 minutes)
  2. Pass out a paper or digital template and ask participants to sketch their magazine cover. (2 minutes)
  3. Ask participants to post their magazine covers (on a whiteboard or virtually). (1 minute)
  4. Then ask individuals to present their magazine covers. (5 minutes)
  5. Discuss the bullet point failures on the magazine covers as individual items and themes. Ask for clarification, as necessary. (5 minutes)   
  6. Compile a list of the bullet points (a secondary facilitator can do this during the discussion).
  1. Allow each participant three votes for the most likely events to occur. (2 minutes)
  2. Then allow each participant three votes for the most impactful events. (2 minutes)
  3. Afterward, allow each participant three votes for the easiest events to address. (2 minutes)

Point out that by addressing impactful events (the showstoppers) the team is most likely to reduce the chances of a failed project. A most Impactful event might also be likely and easy to address.

Now you have agreed-upon risks that can be addressed in the project plan.

As the project is executed, everyone on the project can now ask, “How does this decision affect our most impactful project risks?”

Agreement about the risks keeps everyone focused on making decisions and taking action proactively to address the known risks that can lead to project failure.

Not every Project Kickoff group will be willing to engage with the Pre-Mortem game, considering it frivolous. Lean into that. Emphasize that it is a game and participants are free to express their thoughts and discuss their prior experiences in a judgment-free environment. 

And when it does work, it’s magic. 

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