Postmortems (aka retrospectives) seem like a good idea. You and your team meet at the end of a project to debrief and learn from what worked or didn’t work.
In fact, at past companies that I founded, we were pretty good at holding postmortems at the end of projects – especially those that were spectacular catastrophes. These meetings were intended to help us improve our work, but usually they were little more than venting sessions about all the crap that went wrong and was frustrating.
Maybe we did them wrong, but they never seemed incredibly valuable.
But premortems…we loved those.
Instead of grumbling at the end of a project about everything that went wrong, we met at the beginning of the project and discussed what could go wrong.
It was playful, even fun, plus it led to better decisions and outcomes.
So, if you’re not familiar with premortems, let me tell you a bit about when and how to use them.
Benefits of Premortems
Premortems are most useful for teams on the verge of high-stakes project kickoffs or decisions. The power of a team is in the diversity of perspectives. Premortems give you a tool to tap into the group’s wisdom and spot any potential blindspots. Much better to see the blindspot before a project begins than during or after.
Premortems also are massively helpful when you sense that there is unsurfaced anxiety in a team. Having a chance to name concerns beforehand can be surprisingly a big relief to both individuals and the collective team. As a leader, you want any anxiety to come out productively (e.g. “I’m concerned this isn’t going to work because of X.”) rather than being something that later undermines the project (e.g. “I knew this wasn’t going to work.”). The vulnerability of sharing not only surfaces concerns but also builds trust within the team.
Using premortems help you identify risks and blindspots in the proposed approach while also helping the team responsible be more connected from the start.
How to Run a Premortem
Step 1: Gather the Team
Schedule 60-90 minutes for the premortem meeting. Book a longer block of time if 1) the team is larger (6+) or 2) the project is especially large in scope or impact. You’ll need a meeting space with a whiteboard, plus a sharpie marker (these force fewer words + are easier to read) and a stack of 15-20 post-its for each person.
Step 2: Timeboxed Brainstorm
To start, you’re going to invite everyone to brainstorm answers to the following question: What could go wrong on this project?
A few guidelines to share that will help everyone:
- Each answer should be on its own post-it note.
- Consider all stakeholders & influences in your responses.
- All responses are welcome (from silly to doomsday).
Now set a timer for 5 minutes and go.
Step 3: Share & Group Responses
Once time is up, have each person shares their answers by reading each one out loud and then placing the post-it on the whiteboard. After a response is read, ask others to add any similar answers to the whiteboard near that post-it. Doing so, you’re creating themed groupings as the team shares.
Once everyone has shared and all of the post-its are on the whiteboard, give th team 5 minutes to move and merge post-its with the goal of creating distinct topical groupings when possible.
By the end, you should have a handful of clear topic groups in addition to a handful of outliers.
Step 4: Vote on Topics for Discussion
Now everyone get 2-3 votes to advocate for which topics are most in need of discussion by the group. As people to vote on a topic or theme by writing a ★ next to the topic on the whiteboard. By the way, be sure to switch to dry-erase markers here.
Step 5: Discuss & Action Plan
The most pressing answers to “What could go wrong on this project?” have now been identified. Timebox discussion time on the top vote-getters, focusing on answering: “How can we mitigate this risk?”
There’s usually time for 2-5 topics, but it will depend on what the team feels is necessary. Sometimes there are three obvious topics and we’ve split the remaining time into thirds. Other times it’s not quite so clear cut.
Your goal here is to create an action plan to proactively address the concern.
Finally, save a few minutes at the end of the meeting to invite ownership of any of the topics on the whiteboard that weren’t selected. Often there are people who feel strongly on a non-selected topic. It can be powerful to let them take that concern and carry it forward on the project.
If you have project to kick off or a key decision to be made, give a premortem a try. You’ll be surprised not only by the clarity it will give you but also helps align and energize the team from the beginning.