Conduct a Pre-mortem

Gary KleinOne of the most interesting areas of management performance to me is decision-making.  And one of the most interesting writers on the subject is Gary Klein.

His principle research interest is in how to use intuition effectively, which led to some of his work being described in Malcolm Gladwell’s huge-selling book, “Blink”.

One of the tools that Klein has developed is what he calls the “pre-mortem” exercise.  This is a technique that should be familiar to all project managers.

The Pre-Mortem

In a post-mortem, we look at the tattered remains of a failed project and try to figure out what went wrong.  In a pre-mortem, Gary Klein suggests, we should imagine that our as-yet un-started project has failed failed spectacularly.  With this assumption as a starting point, we then proceed to figure out what might have caused it.

A Shift in Perspective

This is different from the more familiar risk identification process, where we try and think of all of the things that can go wrong.  Notice what this shift in perspective from “what could go wrong?” to “what has gone wrong?” does.  One of the biggest sources of failure of a project is over-confidence.  We have too much faith in our team, our assumptions, our planning, our execution capability.  This blinds us to many potential sources of failure.

In the pre-mortem process, we can skip past this by starting with the presumption that the project will fail.  It team members can be made to think that this has happened, then they will work hard to find explanations for the failure and, in so doing, will unearth all sorts of risks.  By now it is too late to say: “but that could never happen” because we have entertained the real possibility that it might.

Risk Happens!

Risk Happens! by Mike ClaytonAccessing personal experience is one of six approaches I offer for identifying risk, in “Risk Happens!”  The pre-mortem is one the techniques under that heading.

To learn more about the pre-mortem, read Klein’s book The Power of Intuition”.  Fast Company and Harvard Business Review carry articles that discuss Klein’s work and the technique, on their websites.

The “so what?”

Break the cycle of assuming your project will succeed and thinking risk management is just about dealing with the frustrations along the way.  Start looking for the hidden “unknown knowns” that will cause it to fail, if you don’t find them and tackle them.

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2 thoughts on “Conduct a Pre-mortem

  1. terry reilly

    Hi Mike I have signed up for the newsletter and await it eagerly. So far have enjoyed your work on pre mortems. We are an Australian management company with an interest in improving implementation of our change projects.
    This is fairly new to Australia ( only one site at our science agency). Do you have any idea of how many/types of organizations that have tried the pre mortem approach in the US? Where have you tried it?



  2. Mike Clayton Post author

    Terry, thank you for signing up – welcome on-board.
    I don’t have any data on the use of pre-mortems. As I say in the article, the idea was first put forward, I believe, by Gary Klein. He is a psychologist who specialises in studying and advising on (through his business: decision-making in complex environments.
    I have used the method in outline to help me risk-assess one specific project, because I hit on the basic idea for myself. I did not learn of his very much more structured and thought-out process until after I had left day-to-day PM and moved into training, researching and writing. So I cannot offer you real practical experience and can only recommend you follow up on the leads to Gary’s writing, above.
    Best of luck to you, Terry.


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