Premortem: Use the Power of Hindsight Before You Make a Decision

We’ve all been there.

We made a decision that seemed smart at the time but it failed big time. Worst of all, upon reflection it was so obviously doomed we’re shocked we didn’t realize it at the time.

What if you could access your future self’s insights to help avoid these obvious mistakes? That’s exactly how a premortem works.

A drawing of a person imagining a grave stone with "RIP project" written on it. There are two people around the grave saying "It all went wrong when..."

Premortem: anticipating obvious issues

A premortem is when you take a moment to imagine your next project or idea failed and then work out how you could have prevented those issues.

In the context of teams, this usually takes the form of a special type of planning session or workshop. However, individuals can use the same mental model for their personal goals, plans and reflections.

It’s such a simple idea but this change in perspective helps individuals and teams to spot obvious issues from the outset. Best of all, most of these issues have easy fixes that you can now implement.

By taking just 30 minutes to slow down and think, you can prevent days of clean up work.

How to run a premortem workshop

A premortem template for a workshop with three columns. 1. What went wrong, 2. what were the results? 3. how can we prevent it? there are post-its on the board.

A premortem workshop is an easy activity to run and can be done in person with Post-it stickers or online with a tool like Mural. You can even use a Google Doc, but a whiteboard tool is far better in my experience.

  1. Get the team together and say some words of mourning for the project (use this to review the project).
  2. Each person writes ideas for why the project failed on Post-its.
  3. The group ranks the ideas and scores based on the likelihood to fail and the severity of risk.
  4. Each member generates solutions to the problems on post-its.
  5. The team assigns action items based on the process.

Success not guaranteed

There will always be some factors we can’t anticipate.

After all, who on earth could have predicted the global lockdowns and pandemic of Covid-19?

While these once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) and black swan events may make it seem that a premortem is useless, that isn’t the case. Although some events are unpredictable, there are many we can anticipate — especially when we take the time to reflect.

And when those unpredictable events do occur, we will know that we have prepared the best we can.

Don’t subject yourself to obvious pitfalls

Nobody likes that realisation they could so easily have avoided the problems they now face. Use a premortem to banish that feeling for good.

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