People are reluctant to share their reservations about project planning. A pre-mortem helps create a safe environment where everyone can voice their concerns. #### How likely are you to deliver your project on time? How likely is it that your project will be successful? What makes you more confident than others? Are you better at predicting the future?
People tend to exaggerate their ability to predict the future. Despite all our knowledge and past experience, we often fail to predict successful outcomes. One can easily associate that ability with experience. However, even experts are often not very good at predicting the future .
In the work environment, false predictions made by overconfident people have consequences. Most start-ups fail; projects miss deadlines; software migration projects fail. Architectural blueprints often don’t match reality — or even worse — the software produced by the engineering team doesn’t meet the needs of the business.
The fact is, even the industry acknowledges that things can go wrong and embraces that. Failures are part of the process, and we should learn from our failures. But, what if you could go forward in time and look back to identify what went wrong to avoid or at least reduce the risk of failure before decisions are final? Presumably, you don’t have a time machine lying around — but there’s a method to achieve that, and it’s called a “project premortem” .
The premortem method is a meeting meant to be conducted by a group of people who have a knowledgable background on a project before there is a commitment to a risky decision. The idea of the premortem originates from research  that found out that imagining a future event as if it has already occurred increases the ability to identify reasons for future outcomes correctly by 30% .
The issue that Gary Klein raised was that most people are reluctant to speak up about their reservations during the all-important planning phases. Therefore the goal of the premortem meeting is to imagine the future and create a **safe environment **where everyone can raise their voices.
Why do we need a safe environment?
In most organizations, decisions are not taken alone but rather in a group. The group behavior can be influenced easily by optimistic and confident people or individuals. In the process of planning and decision-making, most people are reluctant to express their doubts about the plan. Although the reasons are not clear why people are unwilling to speak up, one can safely assume that organizations are the sum of many different types of people.
Every individual has different character traits, and more often than not, people are reluctant to raise issues in public settings. Furthermore, any reservations expressed by individuals usually tend to be viewed by peers as pessimistic. Considering that organizations generally prefer optimistic people over pessimists provides another clue why people are reluctant to speak up.
By providing a safe space for those who are knowledgable about the domain, one can legitimize all views, regardless of who they are raised by. This safe environment, in return, creates an opportunity for everyone who is part of the project to raise their concerns, which otherwise would not be heard at all.
How to conduct a premortem meeting
To conduct a premortem meeting, gather everyone knowledgeable about the project or decision in a room. Prepare the doomsday kit: a white-board, markers, and sticky notes, and you’re ready to go.
- A facilitator or individual who leads the project asks the team to “imagine that they are a year or two ahead, and that project has failed miserably.” The time is relative here; it could be less or more depending on your project.
- Ask the team members to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure. Each individual should create ideas independently, and write down every possible failure they can think of. In this stage of the process, it is essential not to apply any filter, so participants should feel free to express their thoughts. Therefore, you should encourage participants to write down any reason they can come up with. The group should also welcome anything that may seem undiplomatic.
- Once everyone has written down their reservations, the facilitator asks each team member to read their reasons (or stick them on a whiteboard) until the facilitator has gathered all ideas.
- The next stage is to challenge each plausible reason — that is, how that particular thing led to the failure of the project. The aim is to get a deeper understanding of (future) failure and allow each individual to express their thoughts freely.
- At the last stage, those who are leading the project should seek ways to strengthen the project with newly gathered data.
The beauty of this method is that it inserts something very human into the process of decision making. Especially in the discipline of software engineering, there often isn’t any scientific way to back up the decisions. Therefore, creating a safe environment where people can raise their concerns, and a platform where individual opinions are valued can be precious.
While the premortem method cannot guarantee that failure will be averted, it can certainly help you to identify potential problems early on.
- Tetlock, P. E. (2005). Expert political judgment: How good is it?
How can we know?. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
- Gary Klein (2007). Performing a Project Premortem. https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem
- Mitchell, Deborah & Russo, J. & Pennington, Nancy. (1989).
Back to the future: Temporal perspective in the explanation of events. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. 2. 25–38. 10.1002/bdm.3960020103.