Self-Taught MBA: The Project Premortem
A project management technique to help you learn from mistakes you haven’t made yet.
There’s a project management technique that helps you to learn from your mistakes— although before, and not after you make them. It’s called the Project Premortem, and I’ll explain how it works. But first, what does it mean?
You’re familiar with the coroner’s postmortem examination, applied to folks who die without an obvious cause, or when a crime is suspected. The medical examiner performs an autopsy, toxicology tests and all kinds of scientific inquiry to figure out why this person perished.
The term postmortem is also applied to the analysis of failures in military maneuvers, businesses and projects.
For a while, Silicon Valley fell in love with the postmortem of technology startups and the FailCon was born, an annual conference devoted to learning from, and preparing for failure through the thorough analysis of technology startups that never made it.
But failure is not free. It costs a lot of money. It can wreck your marriage. And severely wound your pride, making it harder to try again. If you have any doubt, check out the story of our own Mr. X, who anonymously detailed the failure of his home-building business in “How I Wrecked My Business, Screwed My Friends, and Almost Destroyed My Marriage”.
The Premortem provides the advantage of learning from failure without the pain, and at the very low cost of a company meeting.
What’s a Premortem
The Premortem is like a guided nightmare, where the team leader—probably you—proposes thinking the unthinkable. Total failure. You don’t imagine it coming, you imagine it has already occurred, and then you figure out why.
Since I have lived through many projects gone wrong (I am old, not incompetent!), and really don’t need the lessons of living through failure again, I am especially fond of this technique and apply it near the end of the project planning phase, and just before we actually launch a major the new job.
The technique was invented by professor Gary Klein, chief scientist of Klein Associates, a division of Applied Research Associates, in Fairborn, Ohio, who realized that projects fail at a spectacular rate. Mostly because folks are afraid to give voice to their forebodings during the project development phase. Especially in our culture of Just Do It, the naysayer is often silenced as a worrywart, or worst, a traitor to corporate aims.
But inevitably, when you analyze a project’s eventual failure, some on the team will say something like, “I could see it coming, but nobody would listen.”
Even the most pumped up and optimistic will usually cop to the element of myopia as a leading cause of their eventual failure, as Mr. X admits in his Fine Homebuilding confessional, “I’m not sure if it was naiveté, arrogance, or what that kept me from paying closer attention. When I finally realized what was going on, it was too late.”
The premortem provides a tonic for this dammed the torpedoes attitude so common among entrepreneurs and gives voice to any doubts that may already exist in silence among your team members. Moving forward, it makes it possible for teammates to voice their concerns without reservations.
Ultimately, it’s better to avoid failure than to learn from it.
The Monday Morning Premortem
I’m about to conduct a premortem with my company. We have been working very hard to land a large contract with a new client. We remain totally focused on getting to the point of signing the contract, and with my 60 years’ perspective, I have the vantage to know the pressure of closing the deal is already paving the road to potential failure. As soon as the contract is signed, which could be today, I will schedule our company-wide premortem meeting.
This is what will happen.
Everyone, from partners through secretaries and laborers will come to work in comfortable clothing. After dispatching a few Monday morning urgencies, at about 10:00 AM, we will gather in the conference room. There will be coffee and pastries. We will celebrate the contract signing, and I will award praise on those that brought it to fruition.
And then my tone will darken.
I will ask everyone to relax in their chairs, close their eyes, take a deep breath, and then mentally move forward in time six months. The project is now well underway, but we are way behind scheduled. The client is very grumpy, my partners and I have started arguing, and work in the field has become tense and under pressure.
Then I say, move even further into the future, nine months from now it’s become evidence and nobody doubts that the project is failing. We do everything possible to recover, but nothing seems to work. Three more months, and we all now know that the project is a spectacular failure, worse than we ever imagined, and there is no road to recovery.
The Imaginary Postmortem
I will let everyone in the room, including myself, welter in this musing for a few miserable minutes. Then I will ask everyone to open their eyes, take the paper and pencil in front of them and write, for about three minutes, sentences describing what went wrong.
By turn, each will read their sentences and elaborate on their analysis of what went wrong in this catastrophic, hypothetical failure. I will praise those with the most revealing and honest comments, only to convey that the boss does not fear critical thinking—on the contrary, I encourage it.
Groundwork for Success
After we give voice to all that may go wrong, the conversation turns to the important part, what can we do to avoid it? After we acknowledge the potential of failure, we can begin to think of ways to avoid it, and shore up the foundations of success.
As in the first exercise, I will ask everyone to write down their suggestions, read them out loud and engage the team in discussion.
Despite the charmed conviction of many in the motivational movement, success is not built on optimism and magical thinking. Success depends on good procedures and management methods that shepherd good quality and timely results.
You know this, everyone does. At least in theory. The premortem technique engages the imagination to make the need for those management methods real. Team members take ownership in procedures discussed at the premortem meeting, which then bulwark against failure and act as the foundation for success.
Instead of those procedures coming as management orders from above, the experience of living through the imaginary consequences of failure matures your team, and allows you to avoid the painful learning experience of failure in real life. It’s an alternative to the school of hard knocks.