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! .


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

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.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, IIIThe Politics of Lessons Learned
Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
An artist's conception of a planetary accretion diskWhy Scope Expands: II
The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportRisk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep?
A plastic owl, used as a deterrent of unwanted birds and rodentsAnticipating Absence: How
Knowledge workers are professionals who "think for a living." When they suddenly become unavailable because of the pandemic, we consider substituting someone else. But substitutes need much more than skills and experience to succeed.
A street sign at Maxwell Air Force Base, AlabamaJoint Leadership Teams: OODA
Some teams, business units, or enterprises are led not by individuals, but by joint leadership teams of two or more. They face special risks that arise from the organizations that host them, from the team they lead, or from within the joint leadership team itself.

See also Project Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.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:

Reprinting this article

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

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.