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 stagesessentially 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.
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. Top Next Issue
Projects 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! .
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Project Management:
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or
video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part
III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Risk Management Risk: II
- Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. Here are some
guidelines for reducing risk management risk arising from risk interactions and change.
- More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes
miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
- How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II
- We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem,
and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem
we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode.
- Anticipating Absence: Passings
- In times more normal than ours, co-workers who pass on tend to do so one at a time. Disease or accidents
rarely strike many co-workers in the same week, month, or year. There are exceptions — 9/11 was
one such. This pandemic is another.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info