Project Tip for Project Managers: Conducting a Pre-Mortem

As we all know, a Post-Mortem helps us learn why a patient has died. A Pre-Mortem explores why a project might die in the future. Rather than conducting a project post-mortem, after a project has died, why not conduct an imaginary project pre-mortem at the start of the project? Here’s how Gary Klein describes the approach in September’s ‘Harvard Business Review’.

“I find it works well at the end of an open space after the planning process is complete. It injects an additional level of realism into the plans.” – source

“Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton
School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University
of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight — imagining that an
event has already occurred — increases the ability to correctly
identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.”

  1. Materials:
    • Butcher’s paper (or whiteboard) and markers to write things up.
  2. Time:
    • From 30 minutes to 3 hours depending upon the size and complexity of the project.
  3. Directions:
    • Step 1: Preparation. Team members take out sheets of paper and get relaxed in their chairs. They should already be familiar with the plan, or else have the plan described to them so they can understand what is supposed to be happening.
    • Step 2: Imagine a fiasco. When I conduct the Pre-Mortem, I say I am looking into a crystal ball and, oh no, I am seeing that the project has failed. It isn’t a simple failure either. It is a total, embarrassing, devastating failure. The people on the team are no longer talking to each other. Our company is not talking to the sponsors. Things have gone as wrong as they could. However, we could only afford an inexpensive model of the crystal ball so we cannot make out the reason for the failure. Then I ask, “What could have caused this?”
    • Step 3: Generate reasons for failure. The people on the team spend the next three minuted writing down all the reasons why they believe the failure occurred. Here is where intuitions of the team members come into play. Each person has a different set of experiences, a different set of scars, and a different mental model to bring to this task. You want to see what the collective knowledge in the room can produce.
    • Step 4: Consolidate the lists. When each member of the group is done writing, the facilitator goes around the room, asking each person to state one item from his or her list. Each item is recorded in a whiteboard. This process continues until every member of the group has revealed every item on their list. By the end of this step, you should have a comprehensive list of the group’s concerns with the plan as hand.
    • Step 5: Revisit the plan. The team can address the two or three items of greatest concern, and then schedule another meeting to discuss ideas for avoiding or minimising other problems.
    • Step 6: Periodically review the list. Some project leaders take out the list every three to four months to keep the spectre of failure fresh, and re-sensitise the team to the problems that may be emerging.


  1. Klein, G. (2003). Intuition at Work: Why Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Better at What You Do. New York, Currency Doubleday.
  2. Performing a Project Premortem Harvard Business Review, September 2007 By Gary Klein, ARA Klein Associates Division.

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