While inventing the lightbulb, Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Every time he created a failed lightbulb, Edison learned new things about what didn’t work and what he should try next.
Understanding what doesn’t work—and trying something new—is a great way to iterate and improve your processes. That’s exactly what a project premortem does. Before kicking off the project, run a premortem with your team to envision what could go wrong. Then, when you move into project execution, you’re better equipped with the knowledge of what won’t work—and what will.
During a premortem (before you’ve even started a project), your project team looks ahead to the end of a project and imagines it has failed. By working backwards from the point of failure, your team can better understand the project risks and how to avoid them as your project progresses.
Premortems are led by the project manager or Scrum master, but the entire project team participates during the process. The more diverse perspectives you have during the premortem, the more likely you are to identify a potential future risk and prevent that risk from happening.
If you’ve never heard of a premortem, you’re not alone. A lot of project teams plan postmortems at the end of a project, to debrief with their team or understand what went wrong—but oftentimes a postmortem is too little, too late. Instead, a premortem proactively identifies the project risks and addresses them before they happen.
As the name suggests, premortems and postmortems happen at different stages of the project timeline. A premortem happens before a project begins. These analysis sessions serve as proactive risk assessments of potential project failure.
A postmortem, on the other hand, is an analysis of a project after the project is over. You may have also heard postmortems referred to as retrospectives, especially by teams that run Scrum. Unlike a premortem, a postmortem isn’t always about project failure. These sessions are most commonly held after a project goes wrong, but you can also run a project postmortem to extract any learnings the project team wants to share.Free retrospective template
A premortem serves a similar purpose to a project risk management process. Both of these processes help you proactively identify and prevent project risks. The main difference between the two is how you approach identifying risks.
During the project risk management process, your team identifies and monitors potential project risks through a risk register. If an identified risk becomes reality, your team already has a plan in place to address it efficiently and effectively.
Alternatively, during a premortem, your team imagines that the project has already failed. A premortem is less about identifying and managing risks and more about visualizing a risk actually happening. This is a helpful mental structure for some team members. It’s freeing to stop talking in “what ifs.” The project lead then takes this information and uses it to reduce risk or, in some cases, build a project risk management plan.Read: The project risk management process in 6 clear steps
A premortem, like any risk management plan, helps you and your team prevent project failure. But the specific framework of a premortem—where your team imagines a failure has already happened and works backwards from there—has a few distinct benefits.
With a project premortem you:
Gain prospective hindsight. Prospective hindsight is when you imagine something has already happened. According to research, prospective hindsight increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.
Reduce overconfidence. Sometimes, you want a project you’re planning to succeed so badly that you unconsciously allow your biases to take over and ignore risks. This can happen to anyone, even if you run a project risk analysis. A premortem imagines the project has already failed, so it allows you to brainstorm without overconfidence shadowing the truth.
Involve cross-functional teams. Because a premortem involves a variety of stakeholders—not just the core project team—it brings new perspectives and provides valuable insights into potential project risks that you wouldn’t otherwise identify.
Align on project risks. Like most risk management plans, a premortem flags potential project risks. Then, when you’re working on the project, you and your team are more aware of the roadblocks, and you can identify those risks faster if they do come to pass.
To use the premortem technique, work backwards from the point of failure to identify potential risks with your project plan. Once you’ve identified risks, brainstorm the likelihood and severity of those risks. The final step is to prevent likely or severe risks from happening.
Before imagining what went wrong, you first need a general sense of what’s going to happen. This is where the project plan comes into play. A project plan is a blueprint of the key elements your team will accomplish during the project.
There are seven parts to a project plan:
Stakeholders and roles
Scope and budget
Create and share your project plan before doing a premortem. Your team needs to understand exactly what the project plan is in order to think about how it could go wrong. Depending on the complexity of the initiative, you could also share a project roadmap, project charter, or business case.
For example, here’s a project plan for a marketing campaign in Asana:Read: How to create a project plan that works to keep you on track
As you plan your premortem, invite anyone who has insight into why the project could fail. This includes your core project team, as well as any cross-functional working partners. It’s less important to invite project sponsors or executive stakeholders, since they aren’t as tuned in to the day-to-day project work. For help identifying who to invite, create a RACI chart.
To continue our example marketing campaign plan, relevant stakeholders include:
Daniela, the marketing campaign lead and email marketing manager
Kabir, the copywriter for the campaign
Avery, the design lead for the campaign
Blake, the social media manager supporting the campaign
Kat, the video manager
Once you’ve shared your project plan and identified your stakeholders, it’s time to actually run the premortem. The first step of the premortem meeting is the brainstorming session, which is split into two parts.
To get started, each team member should brainstorm potential project risks on their own. You can do this live if your team likes to brainstorm in the same room, or try brainstorming asynchronously in the days leading up to the meeting. Make sure your team members are doing this by themselves, so they’re not biased by any other team member’s idea. Your team will have time to compare and share ideas later.
As the project lead, make sure your team feels comfortable sharing all of their thoughts. Some project risks are more personal than others, but ignoring those risks can negatively impact the project’s success. Consider establishing group norms before everyone begins sharing their ideas, so everyone feels comfortable sharing all of their thoughts.Read: 29 brainstorming techniques: effective ways to spark creativity
For example, the marketing campaign team identifies the following reasons the campaign could fail:
Project deliverables don’t go out on time.
Project deliverables go out on time with spelling and graphical errors.
The project goes over budget.
There is negative customer feedback to the campaign message, which leads to bad publicity.
Associated campaign landing pages crash and aren’t available on launch week.
The brand campaign design style is copied by competitors.
Marketing budget cuts impact brand campaign deliverables and timeline.
The creative strategy doesn’t resonate with customers, leading to a market miss and a reduction in brand perception and value.
Stakeholders are misaligned on deliverables, which leads to frustration during the project process.
Once your team members have written down their ideas individually, it’s time to share with the group. Make sure you or another team facilitator is documenting all of the ideas in a central source of truth. Ideally, this process should be visual so team members can discuss the potential failures and build off of them if applicable. Try using a whiteboard or collaborative brainstorming tool to capture everyone’s ideas.
When everyone is ready to share, go around the room (or Zoom) and have each team member share one idea at a time. Instead of letting one team member read all of their project failures, encourage them to share one of their ideas and then go to the next person, and so on. This way, everyone gets a chance to speak. Encourage team members to avoid repeating reasons, unless they have something significant to add.Free team brainstorming template
Not every project failure your team lists during the premortem brainstorming session is likely to happen. Even if it does happen, it might not be severe enough to impact the project objectives. Some project failures are probably too unlikely, whereas others are probably not big enough to impact the project and cause a total failure. As a team, go through the list and identify the project failures that are either high likelihood or high severity.
The number of risks you end up with depends on the scope and impact of your project. In general, ten is a good number, but you could have fewer or more depending on your specific situation.
For example, during the marketing campaign premortem, the team identifies five risks to address:
High likelihood: Project deliverables don’t go out on time.
High likelihood: The project goes over budget.
High severity: Associated campaign landing pages crash and aren’t available on launch week.
High severity: The creative strategy doesn’t resonate with customers, leading to a market miss and a reduction in brand perception and value.
Easy to solve: Stakeholders are misaligned on deliverables, which leads to frustration during the project execution phase.
Once the premortem meeting is over, take what the team brainstormed and apply it to the project plan. Look for weak points in the project plan that you can strengthen to prevent some of the failure scenarios your team members identified. This is your chance to reduce risk and improve future outcomes—before the project even begins.
If you’re working on a large initiative, translate some of the higher likelihood or higher severity action items into a risk register. Then, if you made substantial changes or introduced new tools to mitigate risk, present the changes in the project plan to your team, cross-functional collaborators, and executive stakeholders or project sponsors.
For example, after the marketing campaign premortem, here’s how to address each risk:
There is a high likelihood that project deliverables don’t go out on time. To prevent this risk, view your work in a Gantt-chart like tool to visualize tasks on a timeline and get a clear sense of any deliverables or blockers. To keep executive stakeholders in the loop, send weekly project status reports to keep everyone on the same page about project progress.
There is a high likelihood that the project goes over budget. To prevent this risk, include budget updates in monthly project status reports and make sure your project sponsor is looped in on all budget updates. Before kicking off the project, reset the budget to ensure you have some to spare, in case things come up.
The campaign landing pages crashing severely impacts the brand campaign’s success. To prevent this risk, launch the pages in a staging environment the week before to ensure they work well before sharing them with the public.
The creative strategy not resonating with customers severely impacts the brand campaign’s success because it leads to a market miss and a reduction in brand perception and value. To prevent this risk, include persona research from the product marketing team in the project plan and project brief so everyone is on the same page.
Project stakeholders can become frustrated during the project if they’re misaligned on deliverables. This risk is easily solvable with a communication plan and a central source of truth for all project information, like a work management tool.
A premortem helps you understand why a project could fail and prevent those risks from surfacing. Once you’re finished with your premortem, all that’s left is to run the project. For help getting started, as well as project management best practices, check out our project management resource hub.