Though there’s no shortage of management gurus extolling the benefits of learning from failure, a harsh truth remains: failure sucks. It’s hard to fail even when the stakes are modest — and when you’re working on a “bet the farm” project, it seems unthinkable.
So, how might your team learn from failure before it happens? The answer is simple: do a Pre-Mortem.
A pre-mortem is a managerial strategy in which a project team imagines that a project or organization has failed, and then works backward to determine what potentially could lead to the failure of the project or organization. The technique breaks possible groupthinking by facilitating a positive discussion on threats, increasing the likelihood the main threats are identified. Management can then reduce the chances of failure due to heuristics and biases such as overconfidence and planning fallacy by analyzing the magnitude and likelihood of each threat, and take preventative actions to protect the project or organization from suffering an untimely "death".
According to this Harvard Business Review, "unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the 'patient' has died, and so asks what did go wrong.”
We’ve built a worksheet (which you can download here) that prompts your team to imagine your project was “a miserable failure” and to answer the following questions, as if you’re remembering what happened instead of predicting it:
What are ten things that went wrong?
What were we most nervous about before we began?
What were our blind spots?
What should have been our back-up plan?
Who was our biggest detractor, and what might we have done to get them on board?
What are at least three things we’ll never do again?
Use the worksheet before you kick-off your next project, and it will help you ensure your reality turns out way better than your imaginations.