The Pre-Mortem Analysis: Anticipate failure before starting a project
Written by Hazal Alawi
Projects are by their nature unusual things that have not been done before or at least have not been done in the same way before , and that introduces uncertainty that can affect the outcome of a project. Because projects are uncertain, they all carry risks that can cause things to go wrong. These risks can potentially change the outcomes of a project. Sometimes the project managers are well aware of the risks beforehand, otherwise they completely unforeseen. We have all heard the sentiment behind Murphy's Law: “ Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong ”. This is also applicable in the field of project management; projects are full of uncertainties that may or may not be predicted. A prudent project manager will make some provisions during the project planning phase to deal with the known unknowns . There are techniques available that can help identify project risks before they occur, thus eliminating the probability of project failure. Studies have shown that one of the most effective tools that can prepare project managers and project teams for what can go wrong is called Pre-Mortem analysis which is the main topic of this article.
The uniqueness of the Pre-Mortem technique is that is typically conducted at the beginning of a project after a project team has been introduced to the project . The goal of conducting a Pre-Mortem is to identify vulnerabilities or any signs of threats at the outset that could lead to risks of failure in the project and its course of action, hence increasing the success rate of a project. The technique will not only enrich the project by raising awareness of uncertainties and their likely consequences on the project's success but it also strengthens the team members’ intuitions to become better at mentally simulating how a project is likely to play out .
Why doing Pre-Mortem Analysis
In a dynamic and ever-changing business environment, projects are often confronted with a high level of uncertainty. As uncertainty is an inevitable aspect of most but especially large and complex projects, even the most proficient managers can face difficulties in handling it to ensure the success of a project . Pre-Mortem Analysis as a risk anticipation planning technique conducted at an early stage of a project life cycle to identify and mitigate early signs of trouble that might influence the success of the project. The Pre-Mortem analysis was developed by a research psychologist and expert on business decision making Dr. Gary Klein. The technique first occurred in his 2004 book, The Power of Intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work . The purpose of the Pre-Mortem analysis is to prevent the project from failure by identifying the potential risks before they occur at an early stage of a project life cycle.
The Pre-Mortem analysis is the opposite of Post-Mortem analysis. A Post-Mortem analysis in the medical context is the process that allows identifying the causes of the patient's death. The same process is usually applied for projects, in which the team gathers after project completion to discuss the successes or failures of the project. The objective is to reflect upon and try to understand what went well and what went wrong that has led to the 'death' of the project. This is a great way to learn from the mistakes and the results are useful for future projects. The downside of post-mortem is by that time it is too late - the project has failed and there is no risk of accident for a project that has failed . The investment, the time, and the effort spent on the project are all lost.
The purpose of pre-mortem enables the project team and the management to imagine and correct future problems before they occur. The aim is to prevent failure by pretending that the project has failed and start generating reasons for the failure. A pre-mortem analysis attempts to prevent 'conducting a Post-Mortem' by shit learning to the beginning of a project. The project team is asked to imagine that the project has failed and therefore think backward to identify everything that could lead to the failure of the project . According to the PMBOK guide  (p. 18-32) a project goes through five process groups during its life cycle and these process groups are defined: as Initiation, Planning, Execution, Monitoring and control, and closure. The pre-mortem is preferred to be conducted during the planning phase, where the scope and goals are clearly defined and the project team is determined and introduced to the project . The pre-mortem analysis is essential on medium to large-scale projects that can have a major impact on the organization economically, politically, or culturally.
The Role of Intuition in Decision-Making
According to the creator of the pre-mortem technique, Gary Klein, one of the factors for project failure is that people, specifically the project team, are reluctant to speak up and express their concerns about the project during the important planning phase . According to Klein, the pre-mortem analysis does not only help the project teams to anticipate potential risks early on, but it also improves the group-dynamic, hence reducing the risk of groupthink. Groupthink  occurs when team loyalty becomes more important than the project. Closed groups with dominated leaders show a natural tendency to shut themselves off from critical arguments. Conducting a pre-mortem at the start of the project process, in which the team does not know each other well, allows each team member to state their individual concerns openly without suffering team pressure and creates transparency between all parties .
Klein also claims that the pre-mortem technique also helps the team members to boost their intuition for making better decisions . Intuition in this context is simply understood as a mental process in which project managers and project teams form a belief or judgment without any conscious awareness of an inference process at the workplace. Intuitive decision-making refers to quick and relatively automatic responses to problems without any use of formal tools and procedures, whereas in analytical decision-making the process is deliberate carefully, and controlled . See the characteristics of the Intuitive mindset and the analytical mindset in Table 1. The use of pre-mortem analysis could help strengthen the intuitive decision-making skills of the project managers and teams so they can use intuition safely, reliably, and effectively for making decisions on the undertaken project. Klein argues that people often acquire better intuition through experiences, but this is a passive approach and one's career cannot wait years for experience. He means that there are steps one can follow to speed up the process of developing skills in intuitive decision-making and understanding how to combine intuition with analysis. The book provides tools to apply intuitions effectively in the workplace to make better decisions, spot problems, and manage uncertainties in which one of the tools is the Pre-mortem technique . However, based on a study that Klein himself conducted, the judgment of the moderated experienced was less accurate than the highly experienced, therefore Klein conclude that experience is more important than confidence. The pre-mortem enables the team to improve their accuracy of decision-making under a high-pressure situation.
Another interesting issue that Klein brings up is that often project managers with strong intuition skills through repeated experiences can become overconfident in making judgments and decisions. They might have an inflated belief or judgment that the project is going to be successful . Overconfidence, as Daniel Kahneman called it in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow , is the most significant of the cognitive biases. Overconfident bias simply refers to a biased way of unconsciously looking at a particular situation that can lead to a wrong assessment. Often the team does not step beyond their usual responsibilities and does not analyze the risks of the project deeply enough since they are believing the project manager's opinion more than investigating things themselves. This is the effect of authority bias that the team gets more influenced by the manager's and or other group members' opinions. To know more about the different types of biases in project management see (Biases in Project Management).
The relevance of Pre-Mortem Analysis to Project Management
Many authors have been written about multiple reasons that projects can fail and yet projects do fail at a high rate . Many projects do not deliver their full potential on time, within the budget, and with the required objective. Often project managers and team members look back and say to themselves why did we not see or anticipate that thing that went wrong but then it is too late. The project manager plays an important role in the success of a project . In a fast-paced environment, it is not always feasible or easy to perform deep analytical analysis to predict future events or risks that can have an impact on the undertaken project. The team's expertise and intuition is one of the factors that contribute to accuracy in decision-making made under pressure .
Using the pre-mortem analysis before officially starting the project will increase the success of the project by giving the project manager opportunity for making a better plan. The tool helps to anticipate potential risks that might impact the success of the project. Project risk management is the most important topic in project management. Knowing the causes of the project failure helps to focus more on the specific phases that are critical.
Research conducted by the University of Colorado,1989 , emphasizes that when imagining that an event has already happened, it increases the ability to correctly identify the causes for future outcomes by 30 percent. The pre-mortem technique is developed by using prospective hindsight to help the project managers to identify risks before they occur .
As for the team culture, the use of pre-mortem analysis decreases the influence of cognitive biases at the beginning of the project process. Everyone can share their knowledge and experience that others might not have thought of . The team members are valued for their skills and others learn from them. This decreases not only the tension and barriers that are present in the team but also reduces the overconfidence of the individuals including the project manager. The team-oriented problem solving strengthens the ability to deal with the complexity of the project. Overall, the pre-mortem analysis increases awareness of the project risks that help the project manager to take actions and prevent them before occurring, hence increasing the success of the project.
The tool can also useful in program- and portfolio management since they are facing the same issue. The tool can be used for evaluating the risks associated with the different projects, therefore helping the managers to optimize their prioritization of the projects. The pre-mortem is a way of finding weak points in the program- and portfolio plan before executing. Although, in this context, the tool is not performed on the specific team but rather on a corporate scale, e.g. on project managers and all the relevant stakeholders.
When conducting a Pre-Mortem, the project to be analyzed should have a clear scope, and well-defined goals to be achieved, as well as the time frame for the project completion, should be known. Usually, the associated project manager facilitates the Pre-Mortem for the project teams and all other relevant stakeholders. Therefore, it is required that the project manager should develop familiarity with facilitation to expand her/his role to become the facilitator. There are six steps for performing a Pre-Mortem analysis  as is depicted in figure 1, and the steps are elaborated in the following section.
How to perform a Pre-Mortem Analysis on a project
Before performing the analysis, the project manager has to do some preparation in terms of the resources required which are :
- Gathering a team consisting of people that are directly involved with the development of the project, but also other relevant stakeholders that have a certain degree of power and interest in the project.
- A room with a whiteboard or a wall that is good for post-it notes, and multiple tables.
- Stack of post-it notes for notes and sharpies for every person.
- The facilitator should be properly prepared with the technology needed.
The kickoff meeting can range from 60 - 90 minutes depending on how big the project is. During the pre-mortem session, the facilitator provides assistance to the participants and makes introductions as needed. This is to develop a sense of acceptance and to engage the participants.
The steps of the kick-off meeting are described below:
The six steps
- 1. Prepare by getting familiar with the project
The project manager, or in the case of agile project management, the scrum master selects the team members that are going to carry out the project and other key stakeholders. These people should already be introduced to the project scope and goals. Otherwise, the manager should prepare a clear definition of the project objectives and goals to ensure that the team is aligned. Make sure that every participant has received copies of the project details. In order to allow all the participants to concentrate on the pre-mortem session, assign people outside of the project team to assist with recording and note-taking during the session.
- 2 Imagine the project completely failed - a Fiasco
The facilitator starts by making the participants imagine that the project has failed. Meaning, that let them pretend that the project is completely failed. The question is what are all the possible reasons we could have caused this failure. The participants should use their experiences, skills, and intuition to anticipate the unanticipated. A hint for the facilitator: make the session exciting by starting with strategic storytelling to engage and connect with the participants .
- 3. Generate reasons for Failure
The facilitator encourages the participants to write down all the reasons they can come up with that may have caused the project to fail. The team gets a few minutes to generate a list of possible threats. Here, the intuition of the participants is important. Every participant has a unique set of experiences that they bring, and the collective of knowledge is far greater and better than that of one person. This step only encourages the participants to think and write, not talk or share.
- 4. Consolidate the List of reasons
Once all the participants are done writing down their concerns, the whiteboard or the wall is used for gathering the post-it notes. The facilitator should encourage the participants to work as a team to organize all the post-it notes. This is a way of creating energy and motivation as the ideas are shared. The facilitator may ask each person to state one of her/his concerns or any specific issues and reasons that the failure has occurred. Each issue is documented. This process continues until every member has revealed every issue on their list. By the end of this step, the facilitator should have a comprehensive list of the participants' concerns at hand. An efficient tool for listing and documenting the risks is the Risk Register  which can be used here.
- 5. Revisit the plan and generate solutions
Once all the ideas have been shared and organized, the participants should prioritize the areas of concern. For some causes, improvements can be suggested immediately and for others, the facilitator needs to schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss further. The goal is to mitigate the identified risks. For this step, the Risk-Impact and Probability Matrix  can be useful. The matrix helps to determine which risks need more attention. Decide which are the most serious risk to the project's success and the ones which are most likely to happen. The risks that are highly likely to happen and with high impact must be taken seriously. The participants work through the problems that are prioritized. This is done through a qualitative evaluation and discussion where the participants and the facilitator talk about how to eliminate each of those reasons. The most critical issues will be addressed and potential solutions will be suggested. Some of the participants will be signed to examine the solution forward. Evaluate which of these problems are in our control and what we need to avoid them from happening. Which of the problems are serious and likely but out of our control in which you have to make a contingency plan of what could be done if this happens. The top 3 or 5 causes of greatest concern should be prioritized. The pre-mortem session ends at this step.
- 6. Periodically review the list
This step is concerned with a continuous review of the risks identified during the pre-mortem session. The organization might not be able to control some of the identified risks and therefore keep monitoring. Often project managers review the list every three to four months to keep the threat of failure in mind. Basically, maintaining the Risk Register.
Who should participate
A successful Pre-Mortem analysis must focus on anything that could impact the success of a project. Therefore, any stakeholders (team members, key stakeholders, and customers) who are knowledgeable about the project can help either identify threats or propose solutions. It is not enough to only perform the analysis with the project team, project manager, or scrum master. A thorough analysis involves also users and project sponsors any other relevant stakeholders that influence the project.
How to Mitigate and Monitor the Risks
The list of the identified trouble spots must be periodically monitored and improved continuously throughout the project life cycle. The ’Risk Register’  technique can be applied to list and document the identified risks or the trouble spots identified during the Pre-Mortem session. The PMBOK Guide (Chapter 11)  provide a structured and systematic approach to risk management. Steps of this approach that are relevant to mitigate and monitor the risks identified from pre-mortem are Step 5 Plan risk responses, 6. Implement Risk Responses, and 7. Monitor Risks. The PMBOK Guide provides tools and techniques that can be applied to manage these steps in order to successfully mitigate risks.
Benefits of doing Pre-Mortem Analysis
The Pre-Mortem technique has also other benefits besides identifying potential risks in a project. The technique helps to reduce the overconfidence of the team and the entire organization. It is an efficient and very affordable technique that allows to quickly identify high priority issues through a bias-free approach by involving all relevant stakeholders in the process, and ensuring everyone contribute to the discussion. Based on the experiments made by Gary Klein , it has shown that When people approach a scenario with a failure mindset, they tend to generate more reasons for the failure, and they would suggest things they ordinarily would not suggest.
The method can strengthen both the manager's and the team members' mental model as they hear opinions and concerns about the project. It can create a corporate culture of honesty and trust that the team members would gain for one another as they hear ideas they had not thought of themselves. Hence, it works as a strategy for reducing overconfidence and groupthink issues that might be present within the team.
Identifying and mitigating the threats and risks of a project before they occur optimize the likelihood of the project's success.
The simplicity of the tool provides a high payoff with very little cost, compared to the high return of investment that it would assure the organization. It does not require a lot of planning and organization.
Intuition does not always prove reliable, it depends on the types of decisions that the project- managers, and teams face. It is not realistic to use intuition when dealing with complex and uncertain projects. Moreover, not many organizations take the decision-making through intuition seriously but rather rely on analytical and empirical data for assessing project risks. The pre-mortem analysis is a powerful tool but it can identify risks that may not be real as it is mainly based on imagination with no limits. This could lead the organization to waste time, money, and effort dealing with causes that may never occur.
- Project Management Institute(2009): Practice standard for project risk management.
This book covers risk management processes that are applied to deal with project risk management. The practice standard is based on the PMBOK Guide and aligned with other PMI standards. The book provides different tools for identifying, assessing, and controlling the risks of a project. The Pre-Mortem analysis technique is not included in this book but it gives a detailed insight on how to mitigate and monitor the risks by providing a variety of approaches to risk management that can be useful for handling the risks anticipated from Pre-Mortem analysis.
- Klien, G. (2003): The Power of Intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work, Currency
The book reveals that 90 percent of critical decision-making is based on our intuition. The author of the book, and the creator of the Pre-Mortem technique, Gary Klein is an expert on business decision making and his book is filled with fascinating tips and ideas, including the detailed explanation behind the concept of ’pre-mortem’ analysis for assessing the risks inherent in any decision, and social psychology. The book is essential reading for those who have a desire to develop their intuition skills in any context as well gaining more knowledge on the Pre-Mortem technique
- Project Management Institute (2017): A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide), (6th edition)
PMBOK Guide book is the recognized standard of project management that provides rules, guidelines, and characteristics for project management. The stage of the project lifecycle and the project management responsibilities on stage-by-stage are further elaborated in the book that could be useful for the readers.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Project Management Institute. 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). (6th edition).
- ↑ Padgett C. M., 2021. Managing Known and Unknown Unknowns. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbooksauthors/2021/06/21/managing-known-and-unknown-unknowns/?sh=461056ecd02e
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Clayton, M., 2011. Risk Happens!: MANAGING RISK AND AVOIDING FAILURE IN BUSINESS PROJECTS, Publisher: Marshall Canvendish
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Klein, G. (2008). Performing a project premortem, Publisher: Harvard Business Review (p-2-5). Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/3229642_Performing_a_Project_Premortem
- ↑ 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Klein, G. 2004. The power of Intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work, Publisher: Currency
- ↑ Serrat, O. 2017. The premortem technique, Publisher: Knowledge Solution. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318013212_The_Premortem_Technique
- ↑ Janis, I. L. 1982. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
- ↑ Sjöberg, L. 2003. Intuitive vs. analytical decision making: Which is preferred?. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222667562_Intuitive_vs_analytical_decision_making_Which_is_preferred
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 Kahneman D., 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- ↑ Mathers C.,2022. 6 Authority Bias Examples That Might Impact Your Decisions. Retrieved from: https://www.developgoodhabits.com/authority-bias/
- ↑ Gasemagha, A. A., & Kowang, T. O. (2021). Project Manager Role in Project Management Success. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 11(3), 1345-1355. Retrieved from: https://hrmars.com/papers_submitted/9230/project-manager-role-in-project-management-success.pdf/
- ↑ Mitchell, D. J., Russo, J. E., and Pennington, N. (1989). Back to the future: Temporal perspective in the explanation of events, Publisher: Journal of Behavioral Decision Making Vol. 2, 25–38.
- ↑ 13.0 13.1 Bates C. Premortem analysis: anticipate failure to achieve success. Retrieved from: https://www.skillpacks.com/premortem/, (19 March 2022)
- ↑ Mind tool Content Team. Risk Impact/Probability Charts. Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newPPM_78.htm/, (20 March 2022)