Pre-Mortem: How to Identify Risks Before Starting a Project

Chainarong Prasertthai/iStock/GettyImages

It may seem like a task only a pessimist would think of, but imagining that your project will fail can actually serve a helpful purpose during the planning stages. This critical- and creative-thinking exercise requires your team to think of the worst-case scenario and then backtrack to imagine all the causes of the failure.

Researchers have coined the phrase "pre-mortem" to describe this process, referring to the post-mortem investigation performed in the medical field to determine a patient's cause of death.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

The pre-mortem definition signifies imagining a business project's "death" and its causes before it has a chance to occur.

Why Do a Pre-Mortem Analysis?

A pre-mortem analysis is a useful exercise to perform with your team in order to encourage a discussion about misgivings, doubts or concerns regarding a future project. By performing a pre-mortem analysis, you can take proactive measures to prevent any foreseen events that could cause project failure.

One of the main benefits of a pre-mortem analysis is that it encourages people to speak up about potential problems. In kickoff meetings, project managers tend to try to get the team excited about the future work and nay-sayers are discouraged from "raining on the parade". In a pre-mortem analysis, pointing out flaws and weaknesses is the name of the game. Team members who were previously reluctant to say anything have an open floor for making "unpopular" observations.

Another advantage includes prepping team members to stay alert for the subtle signs of project failure. After a pre-mortem analysis meeting, the team members know what could possibly go wrong and can swiftly take action if the project seems to be headed down that route.

How to Perform a Pre-Mortem Analysis

A pre-mortem analysis begins with all team members in a brainstorming meeting. The project manager introduces the project goals and outline as it currently stands. The team members are then asked to spend some time individually thinking about this project failing and to write down the reason for the failure.

Once everyone has finished brainstorming, the project manager asks people to read out their reasons until every potential reason has been raised and discussed. If needed, the causes for failure should be fleshed out further until they pinpoint the specific reasons for failure. For example, don't just say, "The technology didn't work." Instead, try to say, "The proposed software is very glitchy and likely isn't powerful enough to get the job done."

Obviously, this would be critical information to remedy before the project gets into full swing, especially if the IT department says that this is true and not just an imagined scenario for the sake of the pre-mortem exercise. After the meeting, it's the project manager's duty to evaluate the reasons and to make changes to the project plan accordingly.

Pre-Mortem Analysis Example

One of the easiest ways to do a pre-mortem analysis is to look at the project timeline and imagine each step failing for various reasons. Let's say at some point in your project, you need to ship out the product for distribution. What are some of the ways this particular step could go wrong? The drivers could go on strike, gas prices could skyrocket and make the project go over budget, the product might not even be ready to ship on time, retailers might not be ready for the product, etc.

Consider whether a team member quits suddenly, the market tanks, critical technology doesn't work, a competitor rises out of the ashes, the timelines seem reasonable and have a margin of error or whether an important trend or fad suddenly goes out of style. With a little creativity, your team should point out flaws that they know to exist or that they can see potentially existing in order to make a pre-mortem analysis as useful as possible.