Use a Premortem to Predict the Future

What if there were a way to figure out the problems that a project would encounter before you started work on it? With a premortem, you can do just that.
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
March 1, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
March 1, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

If there is one constant we can count on, it’s that mistakes will happen.

When we start a new project, though, that can be the furthest thing from our minds. We often approach a new challenge with a sense of optimism. Of course, we need to bring enthusiasm to our work. The downside is that we are then opening ourselves to being blindsided by problems we could have foreseen.

Over time, this can become a major problem. In the CI/CD world we live in, it’s never a question of if we’ll have new projects, but how many. As product managers, we own the decision fitness of a company, and the organizational debt that comes from those blindsidings adds up, ultimately affecting the company’s ability to reach its vision.

This responsibility becomes clearer when considering the questions that we tend to get and also the ones we ask ourselves. Often, these questions boil down to some version of “How do we know this will work?” We get so many variations of this question that a lot of PdM tooling is just figuring out how we can answer that one query in all its versions. Retrospectives are designed to help answer that question for past projects, but how can we ask it of future endeavors?

This question keeps product coaches and executives up at night, partially because there is no solution. If you knew the future, you wouldn’t need to be a product manager because you ought to just play roulette all day. For those of us without clairvoyance, though, the best we can do is minimize our risks and raise potential problems as soon as possible. After all, we know mistakes are unavoidable.

So, how do you do that?

Let me introduce the concept of the “premortem,” which is a workshop that can help identify problems before they happen. One of the outputs of organizational debt is fear, and this workshop helps shine a light on that fear so that teams can find alignment. I know this sounds a little scary, but as we walk through a premortem definition, how it creates an accurate map of an organizations incentives, and how you can infuse it into your processes, you’ll see how you can use that fear to find holes in your own team’s alignment.

 

What Is a Premortem?

A premortem is a workshop that allows participants to give voice to their fears about potential sources of failure on a given project. It differs from its more well-known sibling, the postmortem, in that you do this before the project begins. The facilitator of the project asks the team to work backward from a hypothetical potential failure to understand how it happened and which behaviors you can avoid or adopt to dodge catastrophe.

What does bringing up problems before a project do for your team? It gets to a fundamental truth of organized structures: We often deal with the same issues over and over again. Bringing that fact up and making organizational fears and assumptions transparent to those around us is a great way to start to address the problem and end its grip on a team.

A premortem requires a facilitator, a note taker and representatives of the different teams that have some responsibility for the projects success. The facilitator should ask and do all the following:

  • Based on a standard time horizon for a project in your organization, ask the group to brainstorm about some realistic ways this project could fail.
     
  • The facilitator should bundle these concepts together based on topic. In facilitator speak, this is called “affinitizing.”
     
  • The team can then prioritize the problems, first by talking about the groups, and then by voting on which topics are most important to the business.
     
  • Then the facilitator should ask the group to brainstorm again about how to avoid these potholes.

This process, which should take 60 to 90 minutes, will help teams clearly identify fears that they face that may currently be lurking under the surface. The meeting will help the teams to give voice to their anxieties and get everyone on the same page by specifically discussing the issues each group faces.

 

Why Is a Premortem Important?

So, let’s talk about potential failure, which is the foundation for this exercise. What if I asked you, “How will this imaginary project fail?” You might have trouble coming up with anything. In fact, it may seem very strange that anyone would even ask this question.

In practice, though, youll find that coming up with answers isn’t so hard. Let’s shift away from this article and imagine that you, as the product manager, are in a room with your team. You think about the last time a project failed and why. During this session, you recall that two teams didn’t interact well, which hampered the project.

In fact, you aren’t the only one who thinks this. Other people on your team do so as well. The facilitator asks, “What are some realistic ways this project could fail?” You all have plenty of things to say.

Next, you’ll work through why these things happened. As the team expands on the important failures, you’ll gather far more information on what happens when teams interact. The conversation will generate a great deal of insight into possible problems.

Finally, you’ll jump into solution mode and talk about what actions you can take to mitigate the risks you have mapped out. This is process improvement at its best, as you’ll be working with real problems and solutions tied to the fears of the team, based on the themes you’ve seen earlier.

 

Premortems Map Out an Organization’s Incentives

The process in the middle of the workshop, where we affinitize and come to an understanding of what the problems are, has a few components to it that will help you become a better product manager.

What makes the understanding section so powerful is that the person speaking will often share stories in which perceived slights took place. The stories you hear through the premortem will help you understand what fears folks in the organization are facing, both implicit and explicit. Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to hear the team articulate their fears in a fully formed way.

It’s a shortcut to understanding the politics of an organization. Politics aren’t quantifiable, so the information isn’t going to be as straightforward as a hard, quantified number. The qualitative anecdotes you hear, however, will help you identify how your organization works.

If you don’t understand the politics of the organization, you’ll soon wonder why various teams are apprehensive about certain tasks they’re given. This is where having a map, developed through a premortem, helps you to navigate problems.

 

Dealing With the Responses

You’ll notice two types of responses from the teams you speak with. They may talk about themselves, which we can call an internal assignment (i.e., self-awareness). Other times, they may talk about other teams, which we can call external assignment (i.e., blame). You should gauge the seriousness of each response by comparing them to the values of the company and asking the respondents to rank their importance on a scale of one to 10. Doing so will help you determine a course of action. Both internal and external assignments are worth investigating further.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Imagine that you’re talking with your marketing department as part of a premortem. You might get something like: “We got thrashed because our Q3 launch didn’t go well. We were just swamped.” This response would qualify as an internal assignment. It’s also pretty tame since it seems like a one-off issue.

Alternatively, sometimes the responses are very clear external assignments: “Our last release gave us way too many bugs because QA didn’t catch them, and they ruined it.” This is an external assignment and an alarm at that since the blame is absolute, especially if they use dramatic language like “ruined.”

As a product manager, this is where we put our detective hats on and hit the pavement, looking for the reasons why the incident happened. You are looking for sharp critique, blame, or the other failures teams talk about. Sometimes, you can find them in the postmortems of other projects or in written documentation in places like Confluence or notes buried in your company’s Google Drive. Try this with internal assignments.

Other times, the answers will be with the people in the org themselves, and its worth scheduling an informal follow-up chat to get more details. Conference rooms can work for something like this, but more often than not, getting some coffee or lunch will work even better. You want this conversation to be as casual as possible so that no one feels as if they’re under attack for placing blame. Remember, this is a fact-finding mission, not a blame game. This approach is particularly useful for external assignments since talking can clear up misunderstandings.

As a product person, it’s important to build relationships across the organization to find out where resources are and also identify hot button issues between teams. Premortems can help you accomplish this.

 

Making Premortems Real

Not all companies are created equal, and so you need to understand what ties the company together. This is where company culture and values come into play.

These concepts that you often see on the walls and on the website’s “About” page are the key to getting a premortem to happen within teams. Oftentimes, the values you see are at least implicitly agreed on, and since they are, you have the opportunity to use those principles as a shared framework to bridge the gap between groups. They are the lighthouse that can lead your team to safe harbor.

As you put the workshop together, make sure you refer to these values in the description. Do so both in writing as you send out communications and also when you get the team in the room. Since everyone agrees with these principles, at least in theory, people will be far more comfortable with the meeting. They should begin to see it less as a sniping session to get their political enemies and more as a way to get everyone on the same page.

Having a clear code of conduct helps to let people know that there are rules in place to maintain respect between people and teams. Everyone is looking to improve, so it matters how we talk to each other. Snark, sniping and backbiting are all counterproductive. Make sure that whoever facilitates lays out the ground rules and enforces tact in the conversation. Finally, this type of workshop requires clear communication and context. If you can’t get in a room together, video actually matters here.

 

Face Your Fears With a Premortem

Our first calls are almost never right. Same with our perspectives on the teams we are working with. The more alignment we have in the organization, and the higher our trust is inside of our teams, the better we are. We’ll need to have a map of where we are to be effective.

Premortems are a great tool to make that happen. By exploring the past before we engage with the present, we give ourselves a chance at a better future.

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