7 Steps to Avoid Project Failure with a Project Pre-Mortem

Brandi Johnson

Dec 2 2016 4 min read

If you could prevent project failure, would you? (Of course you would!)

We’ve all heard of post-mortems, where we dissect a project after it’s over to identify what went wrong to try to prevent it in projects in the future. Unfortunately, since post-mortems happen after the project is complete (or the patient is gone), they do little to prevent failure.

With a project pre-mortem, you can identify problems and create back-up plans – just in case. Here are 7 steps to prevent project failure using a project pre-mortem with your team.

Step 1: Brief the team on the plan. Before you can start to identify what can go wrong with your project, you need to make sure the whole team understands the goals of the project, and how you’re planning on accomplishing it.

Step 2: Define failure. Don’t just settle for “The project failed. Why?” Have the project go down in flames – set it on fire, lose it in the ocean, take down the entire internet structure with your new launch. Give your failure some color to get the creative juices flowing.

Step 3: Brainstorm reasons for failure. Each person should brainstorm individually anything they can think of that would cause your project to fail. Encourage the team to even list things that they might ordinarily keep to themselves – like if a key stakeholder gets distracted or if the budget gets re-allocated. Focus on the reasons for failure – not solutions!

Step 4: Share all of the reasons. Allow each person to share one reason for failure from their list, until all the reasons have been shared. Do this without judgment, and again, without looking for solutions.

Step 5: Prioritize reasons for failure. Through the course of this exercise, you’ve probably come up with some pretty crazy reasons for failure, along with real risks that you need to plan for. While prioritizing, focus on problems that are:

  • Critical to your project
  • Likely to happen
  • Within your control

Step 6: Create action plans for the top reasons. After you’ve identified the most likely reasons for your project to fail, it’s time to take action. Create action plans to either avoid failure, or backup plans if the scenarios do become issues.

Step 7: Assign team members to action plans. Give your team members responsibility to resolve the problems you are facing, and to enact the action plans you created.

Have you run project premortems? Have they helped you to prevent project failure?


Brandi Johnson

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