Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 11;   March 23, 2022: Premortems



Premortems are simulated retrospective examinations of future events, conducted as if those future events had already occurred. By combining the benefits of psychological safety with a shift in temporal perspective, they offer advantages for planners.
The side mirror view from an automobile

The side mirror view from an automobile. Faintly printed on the mirror are the words, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear." It's a common warning on side-view mirrors. There should be a warning for retrospectives. Something like, "Insights you acquire in this retrospective are biased in favor of the backward-looking time perspective." There is a reasonable risk in retrospectives that you'll miss important and painful realizations, and focus instead on less important and less painful stuff. Have courage. Be willing to look at possible failure modes from the perspective of the future.

Image by askifte at PixaBay.

A few weeks ago, my post was about "Disproof of Concept" as an alternative to "proof of concept." The goal of a disproof of concept exercise is to find the problems with an idea as fast as possible, to enable adjustments while there is still time. This post reminded my friend Jim (that's his preferred format of citation) to drop me a note about a method he has used, called a premortem. Yes, the premortem is an actual thing. And it provides significant advantages to any organization interested in improving its results. [Klein 2007]

In what follows, I depart from my usual preferred terminology. The term postmortem comes from the Latin root for death. That's why I prefer the term retrospective. But in writing about premortems, the term postmortem seems more symmetric, so I'll use it in this post.

Postmortems and safety

A postmortem — also known as an after-action review, retrospective, or lessons-learned exercise — is a special ritual performed at the end of a project that enables the team to process its experience before tackling the next project. [Kerth 2001] Postmortems include exercises carefully designed to enable teams to examine their own performance without fear of jeopardizing careers. The sense of psychological safety is essential. Without safety, important truths can remain suppressed. Learning is limited.

As Kerth puts it, "Part of being safe means knowing that there will be no retribution for being honest (such as being given a negative evaluation during the next performance review). Trust must be established and maintained during a retrospective." Honesty and trust are the basis for disclosure of the information that leads to learning.

Premortems and safety

A premortem is A premortem is essentially a simulated
postmortem for a project that's
actually still in the planning stages
essentially a simulated postmortem for a project that's actually still in the planning stages. To conduct a premortem, the participants imagine that they have been assembled to conduct a postmortem on the project at hand at some point in the future after the project has failed. The task of the premortem is to uncover the factors that led to this imagined disaster.

Premortems are effective, in part, because they're founded on the same basis of safety and trust as are postmortems. According to Klein, project failure rates are so high, in part, because "too many people are reluctant to speak up about their reservations during the all-important planning phase." The foundation of trust and safety enables the participants to honestly raise issues without fear of retribution. And because the premortem occurs during the planning stage, the issues that surface can be used to improve the project plan — or to adjust the project goals.

Klein again: "By making it safe for dissenters who are knowledgeable about the undertaking and worried about its weaknesses to speak up, you can improve a project's chances of success."

Premortems and temporal perspective

Premortems offer another advantage only loosely related to psychological safety. When we as humans make sense of events, the way we think about the events depends on whether they are future events or past events. [Mitchell 1989] As Mitchell, et al., put it, "When people consider an event that has not yet occurred, they adopt a forward perspective. If they look back in time to a concluded event, they adopt a backward perspective."

When we contemplate possible future events, we're making predictions about what might happen. When we contemplate past events, we tend to seek explanations for why they happened. The difference in focus — what vs. why — tends to produce a difference in results. In planning, we're focused on future events, and our focus tends to emphasize what we plan to do and what might go wrong. The premortem enables participants to consider the events of the plan and the speed bumps and risks that developed, as if they had already occurred. The participants can then consider why troubles developed, which leads them to insights they might not otherwise have attained.

Last words

Premortems offer a way to gain the benefits of the powerful combination of psychological safety and a shift in temporal perspective. To take it a step further, consider conducting a premortem about your coming postmortem, or a postmortem about a recent premortem. Go to top Top  Next issue: More Things I've Learned Along the Way: V  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .


[Klein 2007]
Gary Klein. "Performing a project premortem." Harvard business review 85:9, 2007, 18-19. Available here. Retrieved 3 March 2022. Back
[Kerth 2001]
Norman L. Kerth. Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. New York: Dorset House, 2001. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Mitchell 1989]
Deborah J. Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington. "Back to the Future: Temporal Perspective in the Explanation of Events," Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 2:1, 1989, 25-38. Available here. Retrieved 3 March 2022. Back

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