In my last blog I described the fantastic benefits, and developed agenda for an “After Action Review”, AKA: a “Post Mortem”. Here is a link to the article, in case you missed it:  

I thought I should take this next opportunity to share another great evaluation/learning tool: the Pre-Mortem. A pre-mortem is a strategic thinking and risk assessment technique used in project management and decision-making processes. It is designed to help teams identify potential problems, pitfalls, and risks before they occur. The idea is that if you actively work through possible challenges before they happen, you can proactively confront the issues and increase the odds of success.

Imagine you and your team start off a project asking: “What could go wrong?” Soliciting threats, concerns, learnings, and successes from team members, in advance. You will surely uncover all kinds of information! 

On January 28th, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight. The night before the launch, engineers were concerned about launching in cold weather, which could damage critical O-rings. Under pressure to meet the schedule, however, NASA decided to proceed.

If a pre-mortem had been conducted:

  • Cold weather would have been identified as a possible hazard.
  • Engineers might have expressed their concerns more strongly.
  • Decision-makers might have considered delaying the launch.

We can never say for sure, but a pre-mortem could have prompted a more cautious approach, potentially preventing the tragedy. There is always a case for rigorous risk assessment and decision-making – the more consideration the earlier, the better, especially when the cost of failure is high.

The benefits of a Pre-Mortem are clear:

  • Early Problem Detection: Identifies issues before they become critical.
  • Informed Decision-Making: Enables better-informed decisions.
  • Effective Risk Management: Helps prioritize and manage risks.
  • Team Collaboration: Encourages open communication and teamwork.
  • Resource Optimization: Improves resource allocation.
  • Mitigation Planning: Facilitates risk mitigation strategies.
  • Accountability: Clarifies responsibility for addressing risks.
  • Confidence Boost: Increases stakeholder confidence.
  • Cost and Time Savings: Prevents costly setbacks.
  • Crisis Prevention: Reduces the likelihood of project failure.

A pre-mortem is most effective when used at the planning and decision-making stages of a project or initiative. It can also be valuable during ongoing activities to reassess and adjust strategies. The key is to conduct the pre-mortem early enough in the process to allow for proactive risk mitigation and problem-solving.

Here’s how a pre-mortem typically works:

  1. Set the Stage: Gather the key stakeholders, decision-makers, and team members involved in the project or decision. They should represent diverse roles and perspectives. Make sure everyone understands the purpose of the pre-mortem and the goals you aim to achieve.
  2. Imagine Failure: Ask participants to imagine that the project or decision has failed, and it has been a complete disaster. Instruct them to be creative and think about all the possible reasons for this failure.
  3. Brainstorm: Have participants brainstorm independently as many reasons as they can think of for the hypothetical failure. These reasons can cover a wide range of areas, like planning, execution, external factors, team dynamics, resource constraints, and so on. Do not let the discussion move to solution generation yet!
  4. Categorize into themes: Once you have a list of potential failure points, categorize them into different themes or areas. This helps identify common trends and areas of concern.
  5. Prioritize: Have participants vote on the identified risks or failure points based on their perceived impact and likelihood. you can ask team members to choose what they vote for based on likelihood of occurrence, the magnitude of the issue, or with both in mind. This will help you focus your efforts on the most critical areas. 
    • One idea I read gave team members 6 votes, and had them vote in a 3-2-1 pattern – the most important issue to a team member getting a 3, and then a 2, and then a 1. When everyone has voted and you reveal the outcome, you should have a prioritized agenda of discussion topics! 
  6. Discuss and Strategize: Engage participants in a discussion about the risks identified and explore potential strategies. Encourage team members to come up with concrete actions that can be taken to address these risks or prevent them from happening.
  7. Documentation: Document the results of the pre-mortem, including the list of identified risks, their prioritization, and the proposed mitigation strategies. This document can serve as a valuable reference throughout the project or decision-making process.

A pre-mortem is a valuable tool because it allows teams to think critically about potential challenges and vulnerabilities in a proactive manner. By addressing issues before they become actual problems, teams can make informed decisions, adjust their plans, allocate resources more effectively, and ultimately increase the chances of project success. 

A pre-mortem practice fosters a culture of risk awareness and encourages team members to speak up about concerns they may have, ones that could otherwise go unnoticed.

If you could use help running a Pre-Mortem Workshop to uncover and mitigate the risks to your initiative, connect with me at

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Call: (404) 832-5144

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