Pre-Mortem Technique: What, Why and How

The Neuroscience Leadership Institute has been conducting GROW training sessions for my company, Akamai Technologies, over the past 2 years. We have learned so much from them, including that we humans do not react well when in a threatened state. While this seems like an obvious realization, how many times does our project team get into a threatened state at the end of a project when something starts going wrong or not as planned? For me this answer is quite often!

In an attempt to prevent negative reactions in the event that we get into a threatened state, we have begun introducing the Pre-Mortem technique on many of our projects. The purpose is to conceptualize us getting to the go-live date and beyond, and then as a team, share all of the things that made it a success or a failure. Sharing these ideas before we actually go live, gives the contributors a more relaxed platform to share their concerns and vision for success. When done in this manner, it’s much less terrifying to imagine because it’s essentially a “dress rehearsal” for positive and negative scenarios, and they are able to share what’s on their mind more openly. This activity gives the team plenty of time to consider the causes for those successes or failures, and an opportunity to determine an action plan to ensure that the positives happen and the negatives do not - all at a time in the process when you still have plenty of opportunity to influence the outcome.

Here are some tips for conducting a Pre-Mortem:

  • Schedule a 2 hour block of time

  • Determine who to invite. Those to consider:
    • Project team
    • To be impacted users
    • Project sponsors or leadership if they will be active participants and not disrupt the flow of sharing honest ideas or concerns.
  • Start the session:
    • Explaining what the Pre-Mortem Technique is and that they should share openly and freely pretending that the project has gone live.
    • With all participants on video ask everyone to hold up their fingers indicating a 1 to 5 scale of how likely they feel the project is set up to succeed today, 1 being not likely and 5 everything will go perfectly to plan.
  • Use breakout rooms to divide into 2 groups:
    • Group 1 - defines the successes
    • Group 2 - defines the failures

In addition to the successes or failures, both teams will spend time imagining the causes for the same and what actions can be taken in order to ensure the best outcome is achieved.

However, I must warn you is not uncommon for the group that defines the failures to be pretty sad and discouraged during this portion of the exercise. For this reason, it’s imperative to return from the breakout rooms to review both successes and failures, along with the causes of them and the actions identified to succeed.

After garnering some clear actions that have been identified to achieve success, ask participants to do another “gut check” by holding up their fingers to indicate how likely they feel the project is to succeed. In my experience since implementing the Pre-Mortem Technique, I have seen the numbers increase and participants leaving the session feeling much better about the project success than they did at the start. Once the session is complete, be sure to spend time analyzing the gathered data and begin putting those actions into the appropriate plans with assigned owners.

Akamai has seen the benefits of utilizing the Pre-Mortem Technique at work on multiple projects. I can surely attest that since we have implemented this process, we have seen an increase in success after projects go-live and an overall level of confidence among team members if and when issues arise.

Authored by: Michelle Bartlett, ACMP New England Vice President & Treasurer

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  1. Barbi Jo Orlando

    Dec. 14, 2020

    What great way to identify potential roadblocks and get a baseline understanding of stakeholder attitudes about what’s changing. Thank you for sharing this useful experience!


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