Pre-mortem analysis

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The concept of pre-mortem analysis, developed by Dr. Gary Klein, consists in identifying the possible causes of failure of a project. The peculiarity is that the analysis takes place in the very early stages of the project, immediately after the conception of the idea. In fact, we all know the meaning of post-mortem analysis, which in medicine is the process that allows to identify the causes of the patient's death. The same happens with projects. After the failure of a plan, the team tries to understand what went wrong, what may have been the causes of the crash and what led to the "death" of the project. The results of this analysis will certainly be useful in the future because they will allow us not to repeat the same mistakes but one thing is certain: the project died. The time spent, the resources used and the efforts made are now lost. The purpose of the pre-mortem analysis is to prevent this. The basic concept is to assume that the project will fail and, starting from this assumption, to research the causes of death. This method requires negligible application costs and is also inexpensive in terms of time. Furthermore, it has been proven that psychological factors can bring benefits not obtainable with the more classic post-mortem analysis.

This tool is very useful in project, program and portfolio management.

After the analysis, users will be more aware of the complexity of the project. Furthermore, carrying out a pre-mortem analysis drastically reduces the uncertainty which is a relevant factor in the development of new projects.


Pre-mortem to avoid biases

Cognitive biases

Cognitive bias refers to a systematic (that is, nonrandom and, thus, predictable) deviation from rationality in judgment or decision-making.[1]

In other words, people can be unconsciously influenced by certain factors that lead to wrong perceptions. This happens frequently among teams when it comes to discuss and make decisions.

Relevant examples of cognitive biases that can influence decision making are:

  • Confirmation bias: The tendency to selectively search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions or hypotheses.[2]
  • Conformity bias: choices of mass populations influence how we think, even if against independent personal judgments. This can result in poor decision making and lead to groupthink.[3]
  • Authority bias: favoring authority figure opinions ideas within innovation teams.[3]
  • Loss-aversion bias: once a decision has been made, sticking to it rather than taking risks due to the fear of losing what you gained in starting something and wishing to see it finished.[3]

These phenomena occur in an unconscious and natural way when analyzing a project. In particular, these biases become more relevant when the project is at an advanced stage.

For example, let's say you've worked hard for six months on a project. The manager requests an update meeting and to ensure that the plan is progressing in line with the established objectives. During the discussion the manager proposes an idea that he believes can bring value to the project.

How many of those present would try to deeply analyze the idea to evaluate potential risks and how many would agree from the start trusting the manager's experience? (authority-bias).

As the meeting progresses, the team finds itself discussing a particular issue. Everyone has the same opinion except one member. It can happen that this person changes his mind conforming to the ideas of the other team members. This can happen either because it is influenced by "mass thinking" (conformity bias) or simply to avoid conflicts and maintain serenity within the team (groupthinking).

Once this situation has also been resolved, someone arises with a proposal: following some research it seems that a complete change of strategy can bring advantages to the project. Is it necessary to make a decision, continue the work done so far or change the plans? How many people would think of all the hard work they have done so far will be lost? And how many after all the efforts made are totally convinced that the initial approach was the right one? (loss-aversion bias and confirmation bias).

At this point the meeting ends, how many did not express all their ideas thinking they were silly, not relevant or for fear of being judged by the other members?

The benefits of prevention

The peculiarity of the pre-mortem analysis consists in being carried out before the project is officially started.

In this phase the influence of the cognitive biases listed above is strongly reduced or even canceled. Team members are asked to formulate hypotheses and any ideas are welcome and considered. Participants are encouraged to be proactive, the barriers dictated by the different roles in the company are eliminated. Everyone can apply their skills and experience by opening scenarios that others would not have considered.

This allows the team to have a broader vision of the project, evaluate different types of possibilities and therefore reduce the probability of encountering unexpected situations in the future.

Problems such as planning fallacy (the tendency for individuals to underestimate the time required to complete a task [4]) can be prevented as it is very likely that the time constraint will be considered among the many causes. Moreover, of particular relevance is the study carried out in 1989 by experts from American universities showed that assuming that an event has already occured increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.[5]

Downstream of all these considerations, the result obtained from the application of the tool is a clear reduction of overconfidence (The pervasive tendency for an individual to be more confident in his or her abilities or judgments than is justified [4]). in other words, awareness of the criticalities of the project increases. By doing so, it is possible to immediately evaluate adequate measures to prevent failure.


Six steps

A correct application of the pre-mortem analysis can be performed following six main steps:

1.Team Selection and Plan Understanding: The project manager selects the team members who will have to carry out the analysis. These do not necessarily have to be highly specialized, the important thing is that they are people involved in the realization of the project, from the conception, design, manufacturing or distribution phase. Then the manager proceeds by illustrating and explaining the project.
2.Declare failure: the manager declares that the project has failed. Based on the characteristics of the project and the objectives set, he can provide different time horizons (i.e. the project failed after three, six, twelve months of work)
3.Failure Hypothesis: At this point each team member is asked to list all possible causes of failure. this phase can take from 10 to 20 minutes and everyone works individually, noting as many hypotheses as possible. When everyone has finished, starting with the project manager, everyone reads one of their reasons and continues in the cycle until they are all read and transcribed in a place where everyone can read them.
4.Suggest fixes: now is the time to look for solutions in order to prevent each of the previously hypothesized causes of failure. First of all, priority is given to the causes that are considered most likely to occur and therefore riskier. It is important to take into consideration all hypotheses, even the strangest and, in the case of something that cannot be prevented (i.e. the destruction of the factory due to a natural catastrophe), for example, to declare that in any case there would be no resources. necessary to prevent the event from occurring.
5.Revise the plan: after discussing all possible countermeasures the plan is reviewed and the necessary measures are taken so that none of the causes of failure listed during the analysis can take place.
6.Routine recap: the list is reviewed at regular intervals during the life cycle of the project to ensure that it is aligned with the plan and make possible updates.

The result will be a more solid project with a limited level of uncertainty. Team members will also be prepared to deal with different types of contingencies and more aware of the importance of each stage of the plan.

Practical use and leverage of other tools

An experiment conducted by Beth Veinot, Gary A. Klein and Sterling Wiggins [6] showed that the use of pre-mortem analysis compared to other risk analysis techniques (critique, Pro/Cons generation, Cons only generation) decreases confidence in the initial phase, it makes team members more attentive to possible threats and more aware of the risks. Conversely, confidence increases in the next stage, when the causes and possible solutions to them have been discussed.

This study demonstrates the benefits that a pre-mortem analysis can bring to the participants, but how to make this tool truly effective for managers?

The outcome of the pre-mortem will be a number of possible reasons of failure but the key point of the analysis is to find the root cause of the identified problem. As suggested by Theodore Eckert [7], a relevant technique for doing this is called "The five whys". Team members select one of the problems identified with the pre-mortem and ask a simple question: "why?". Let's assume that one of the causes to be analyzed is the lack of time to complete the project. Answer the question "why?" leads to different answers (e.g. the deadline requested by a customer was too close, too much time was used in one phase of the project, the company's resources were not sufficient, etc.). For each of these reasons ask "why?" again. Continue like this until asking "why?" five times. The result will be a more in-depth analysis that identifies the root causes on which management can intervene to prevent the failure of the project.

To make this process even more efficient it is useful to use an Ishikawa diagram, also known as Fishbone diagram. This allows an immediate visualization of the problem and its causes, from the root causes to those arising from them.

The main roles

To conduct a pre-mortem that is as effective as possible some key roles are recommended. These are the sponsor, presenter, recorder, moderator and participant.[7]


The sponsor must be represented by a high-ranking figure in the company. Someone who has decision-making power, so as to ensure that the evidence of the analysis is shared and accepted even at the managerial level. Otherwise, there would be a risk that the results are not taken into consideration because they are not considered relevant by those who will have to make the decisions.


The presenter is the one who has the task of fueling the discussion, making suggestions and asking "why?". It is important that he has extensive knowledge of the project and is able to generate a productive brainstorming.


His job is to write down all the ideas that come up during the session. Any information must be visible to other members. In case of using the Fishbone diagram to identify the root causes he will have to organize the information clearly to avoid misunderstandings.


It has the role of maintaining the focus of the brainstorming inherent in the purpose of the pre-mortem analysis: identifying possible causes of failure. Any kind of misleading discussion or debate between two or more team members must be immediately appeased. It must mitigate the work of the Presenter.


They need to find as many causes as possible and actively participate in brainstorming without being afraid to express any opinion. They can come from different sectors to ensure a broad view on all aspects of the project.

Overview of Benefits and Limitations


  • Bias-free and diverse analysis of all potential project issues[8]
  • Stakeholder alignment on key weaknesses in the project and how to prevent them[8]
  • Action plan to prevent failures from occurring[8]
  • Corporate culture that encourages raising issues rather than ignoring them[8]
  • Limit groupthink and overconfidence
  • Improve agility by enable successful responses to threats
  • Rapidly prioritizes issues


  • Wasting time thinking of causes of failure that may never happen.
  • High costs related to tackling causes of failure that may never happen
  • Negatively affect team’s vision.

The biggest limitation in applying this tool is the risk of spending resources such as time and money trying to prevent possible causes that may never actually happen and influence the team with an excessively negative view of the project.

Relevance in project, program and portfolio management

Project management: There are numerous advantages that a pre-mortem analysis can bring in the context of project management. Having a clear idea of the causes of project failure helps to focus on the most critical phases and therefore allows you to formulate a more effective project plan. In addition, the whole team is actively involved and therefore motivation increases and with it the ability to collaborate among the members during the project. Moreover, having a diversified team leads to the integration of different approaches to problem solving. Consequently, greater flexibility in dealing with changes and better response to the complexities of the project. Carrying out a thorough pre-mortem by integrating tools useful for identifying root causes (eg The Five Why, Fishbone diagram) considerably limits uncertainty.

Program management: in a program management environment, pre-mortem analysis can help to achieve corporate objectives. Assuming that an adequate analysis is carried out in which the role of Sponsor is present, managers at the strategic level will have a clearer view of the projects that will be undertaken. In this way, program managers will be able to effectively optimize the resource utilization among projects and check if they are aligned with the program’s targets.

Portfolio management: similarly, in a broader view, pre-mortem analysis can be useful in portfolio management. It can help at the organizational level to identify which projects/programs present the greatest risks, uncertainties or high costs to prevent them from failing. Therefore, it can lead to a better prioritization and administration processes.

Annotated bibliography

  • Trost, Armin (2019). Human Resources Strategies. Balancing Stability and Agility in Times of Digitization, Publisher. Springer

This book provides a detailed insight into the aspect of human resource management. Useful to investigate how team members can be conditioned in making decisions and therefore understand the advantages that pre-mortem entails in decreasing cognitive bias.

  • Performing a Project Premortem by Gary Klein, Harvard Business Review, September 2007

This article is certainly of great relevance as Gary Klein theorizes for the first time the method of pre-mortem analysis. Framework and short application examples are provided.

  • Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). (2019). Standard for Risk Management in Portfolios, Programs, and Projects. Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI).

the book deals with the topic of risk management in a detailed and in-depth manner. Pre-mortem analysis focuses on preventing any risks and helps ensure an agile response to them. The book addresses various aspects of risk management, providing detailed frameworks. It explains how to behave in case of unexpected situations that can happen and must be handeled with a managerial approach.


  1. Blanco, F. (2017). Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior, Publisher: Springer, Editors: Jennifer Vonk, Tom Shackelford.
  2. A. Wilke, R. Mata, Cognitive Bias, Editor(s): V.S. Ramachandran, Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Second Edition), Academic Press, 2012, Pages 531-535.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Mike Pinder, 16 cognitive biases that can kill your decision making,
  4. 4.0 4.1 J. Ehrlinger, W.O. Readinger, B. Kim (2016), Encyclopedia of Mental Health, Chapter: Decision-Making and Cognitive Biases.
  5. Deborah J. Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, Nancy Pennington (1989). Back to the future: Temporal perspective in the explanation of events, Journal of Behavioral Decision MakingVolume 2, Issue 1 p. 25-38.
  6. Beth Veinott, Gary A. Klein, Sterling Wiggins. Evaluating the Effectiveness of the PreMortem Technique on Plan Confidence, Proceedings of the 7th International ISCRAM Conference – Seattle, USA, May 2010.
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