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No one likes to predict failure, but in project management doing so can be a valuable tool. A project pre-mortem is a management strategy that asks the team to imagine that the project it’s getting ready to launch has failed.
While many teams perform a project post-mortem to document what worked and what didn't, the pre-mortem is before the project launch. It serves as a benefit-and-risk tool based on the assumption that something in the project plan can, and will go, wrong. This is a tool to take preventive actions to protect the project or organization from suffering an untimely "death". The practice of groupthinking helps avoid the pitfalls that could cause the project to fail before it even starts.
The truth is that many projects do fail. However, Boost Midwest finds that clients that have even an abbreviated pre-mortem strategy have a greater chance on meeting their project plan and timeline.
The first step is a draft of the project plan. Team members look ahead to the end of the project at a time when teams are most harmonious — before their specific project tasks begin. This is when team members are usually most reluctant to speak negatively about the plan or identify possible problems that could emerge along the way.
“Everyone wants to believe in the plan they are getting ready to carry out,” McKinsey Company, global management consultants, recently noted.
Project managers lean towards overconfidence, and their teams join in. Holding a pre-mortem meeting reverses the usual team psychology of providing unquestioned support for ideas. Instead, team members are tasked with creative problem solving, as they imagine where, how and why the project plan may fail.
By asking team members to anticipate potential and plausible trouble spots and hurdles, they can be creative in coming up with solutions before they occur. Often, the potential issues the pre-mortem highlight leads can be addressed by tweaking the plan or the processes within it.
“Research shows that pre-mortems reduce teams’ overconfidence significantly more than other critiquing and risk-analysis methods do,” Harvard Business Review cited in recommending project managers utilize the pre-mortem.
Additionally, the pre-mortem often reveals organizational and cognitive biases that can can get in the way of decision-making.
8 Steps for a Project Pre-mortem Meeting
1. Using a shared digital document or a white board, create column headings for:
What may cause us to miss a deadline?
What will help the project maintain its timeline?
What resources is the plan missing or are not sustainable?
What does the project need that we already have?
What have you learned from pervious projects?
What concerns do you have for the project?
What project areas do you feel should be discussed?
2. Ask each team member to consider:
What could go wrong with the project?
What could go right with the project?
Premortem’s goal is to focus solely on the project.
3. Have each team member write their answers down on the shared digital document or on sticky papers tacked under the column headings.
4. Group together ideas that are similar and merge them into a list for each column heading.
5. Have team members vote three times on answers that pose the greatest threats to the project. The votes can be cast on one specific answer or be spread among two or three answers.
6. Now ask team members to cast three votes for answers that represent successes for the project.
7. Take three topics with the most votes into the discussion column and spend 10 minutes on each one, discussing:
The goal during the discussion is to come up with at least one action that will mitigate the risks.
8. Agree on the action items the team is committing to and assign an owner and deadline to each one.
The pre-mortem provides a perspective that often is missing from a pre-launch risk analysis because it doesn’t only identify potential problems before they happen. It also helps everyone from the project manager to team members maintain a realistic view of the project and not let overconfidence blind them along the way.
Boost Midwest offers project consulting and project management expertise aimed at success. For a free telephone consultation, contact our team at BoostMidwest.com.
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