Use a “Pre-Mortem” to Help Your Projects Succeed

Introduction

In the theater world, there is a practice called the post-mortem, or “post-mort,” in which the team gathers after a show to discuss what went well, and what areas could be improved (read: what failed miserably and can’t happen again). In music, we don’t do this as regularly, but it does happen after some concerts or major events.

The end-goal of a project is often obscured. Use a “pre-mortem” to clear away the clouds and face up to a project’s potential disasters.

The end-goal of a project is often obscured. Use a “pre-mortem” to clear away the clouds and face up to a project’s potential disasters.

In this post, I want to introduce an idea that I found in Chip and Dan Heath’s latest book, Decisive, called the pre-mortem. This is an activity for an individual or team to think through all of the events that might make a project go wrong before they happen, and ultimately develop strategies for avoiding these pitfalls.

I am part of an entrepreneurship education group at Millikin University, where we share and develop resources to use in our arts entrepreneurship classes, and across the curriculum. For our latest meeting, I wrote up the pre-mortem activity that I have provided below. This activity can be used by teachers or students:

  • Teachers: Use it in any class where there is a major project, such as a research paper, presentation, or group assignment.
  • Students: You can take it upon yourself to run a pre-mort for any major project to help you plan. Imagine running a pre-mort for your senior recital, an important presentation, or your dissertation defense.

Activity: The Pre-Mortem

Description

Often times, we do an exercise after a venture fails, analyzing what went wrong and fixing it for next time. This exercise allows students to perform a “premortem,” a thought experiment that helps them identify the key points of potential failure in the project, then to design strategies to avoid those problems.

Usage Suggestions

This exercise would be appropriate for undergraduates, graduates, or business project teams. This exercise assumes that there is already a defined project in place that the team is working on.

Learning Objectives

Identifying potential failure points for a venture or project.

Materials List

Pencils and paper; whiteboard and pens.

Pre-Work Required by Students

A somewhat clear understanding and vision of a group or individual project.

Theoretical Foundations

Chip and Dan Heath, Decisive (2013), 202–206. Gary Klein, Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making (MIT, 2009)

Suggested Time Plan (time)

  • 5 min.: Brainstorm the following prompt in teams of three or four: “Okay, 15 weeks from now your project was a total fiasco. It totally failed to meet the requirements of the project, and did not achieve the desired results. Why did it fail? List 20 reasons.”

  • 10 min.: Share with entire group the reasons, capturing all of them on a white board. Include tick marks for doubles.

  • 15 min.: Assign each group one problem to solve, using the top four reasons from the sharing time.

  • Have each group prepare outside of class their presentation of the solution to the problem, to be delivered in the next class period.

How do you think a pre-mortem might help you develop strategies for success in your projects? Are there other strategies that are especially helpful for you? Share them in the comments.

Posted on April 8, 2015 and filed under Arts and Entrepreneurship, Teaching.