Project Pre-mortem: Purpose, Process & Benefits

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

A project pre-mortem is an assessment of problems before they become, well, problems. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the purpose, process and benefits of a project pre-mortem.

What's a Pre-Mortem Anyway?

Have you ever had your tooth pulled before the toothache set in?

What about taking your car to the garage prior to the ''check engine'' light coming on?

Maybe you like to wear winter clothes in the summer to prepare for being cold?

If you're like most of us, you probably don't anticipate most scenarios or pitfalls in advance. Rather, you take them as they come and hope they turn out alright.

In business, that mindset can not only be faulty, but downright troublesome! That's why many project managers rely on something known as a project pre-mortem to help them think through big issues. You may be familiar with the term post-mortem, a somewhat gruesome term that refers to the tests conducted after a death to determine the cause. A pre-mortem, however, is not nearly as morbid. In fact, it has nothing to do with death at all (thank goodness, right?).

A project pre-mortem is a strategy for assessing the strength of a project before it ever happens. For project leaders and team members, the pre-mortem works by assuming the worst - that the project has failed - and then looking for all the ways and reasons why. By doing this, the team is able to figure out where potential problems lie and what pitfalls may present themselves to avoid disaster and help the project succeed.

Instead of getting to the end and going, ''How did we fail so miserably?'', when it's already too late to do anything about it, a pre-mortem allows teams to think through every scenario and every challenge to help work toward a positive outcome.

So, how exactly should a business go about conducting a project pre-mortem? Read on for some advice.

Conducting a Project Pre-Mortem

Putting together a pre-mortem begins the project process. It happens before the project even gets off the ground. Here's the blueprint for putting together a successful project pre-mortem:

1. Get prepared.

Before hosting a pre-mortem, invite all of the stakeholders to the face-to-face meeting. Allow for adequate time to think through all challenges and problems. Experts recommend at least two hours.

2. Brief the team.

When the moment of the pre-mortem arrives, describe the project and explain that it has been an enormous flop.

3. Think of problems and take notes.

Either provide pencil and paper to each participant, or recruit one person to be the note-taker for the entire group. Either method will work. The first allows for participants to jot down their own thoughts on the project's failings, while the second encourages verbal participation, with attendees pointing out every possible problem or pitfall that may have caused the project to fail.

Potential landmines for each project will differ based on the unique details of the project, but could include things like:

  • The power went out.
  • Our keynote presenter missed her flight.
  • The website crashed.
  • We ran out of money.
  • Someone lost the blueprints.
  • Our biggest donor backed out.
  • A hurricane watch was issued.

If it's something that could go wrong, it should be on the list, no matter how improbable.

4. Narrow down the issues.

If your pre-mortem goes as it should, you will end up with a huge list of potential challenges and problems that may shut your event down. You now have to prioritize the list based on the issues that would be most detrimental to your project. For example, if your project takes place outdoors, inclement weather could present a major problem if not accounted for. Planning for this would be much more critical for a successful outcome than planning for the power going out.

5. Define solutions.

Once you've sorted your list of challenges, now's the time to define solutions to head off potential catastrophes. Tackle each problem head-on and determine how you can avoid it or what plan needs to be in place if it were to happen. For instance, if your project needs a functioning website to be successful, creating a backup version or a mobile app can help ensure that a failure in this component will not derail your project. Assign tasks based on the individuals problems and solutions you've identified.

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