Hallway Studio

July 14, 2016

The first few weeks of any product development effort are tricky. You are trying to figure out what you’re doing and how to work together. The expectations are always high and the timeline short.

Recently I discovered the premortem in the excellent book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao. I’m a huge fan of Sutton’s work.

The premortem has been a great tool when we’re working with prospects or new clients. Prospective hindsight, imagining that an event has already occurred, increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. It was created by Gary Klein and popularized by Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman.

This is a helpful exercise because

  • We have an optimistic bias and tend to be really bad at predicting the future. Compare gym goers in January and March and you’ll see what I mean.
  • It creates an opportunity for team members to feel valued and share their knowledge while preventing them from being labeled as pessimists.
  • It predisposes the team to look for signs of trouble and take early action

What I’ve found in the few times that I’ve done it is that while what success looks like is different, how we get there and the challenges are pretty similar. Clarity of purpose, clarity of priorities, shared commitment and good communication are critical.

The premortem creates a moment when we all acknowledge the risks without pointing fingers or being pessimistic and we realize that we are in this together and we need to be open and honest to make it work.

How I run it

  1. Break into team unmitigated disaster and team roaring success
  2. Each team comes up with a story behind using stickies. It’s important that the roaring success team is very specific about what that success looks like. In Sutton and Rao’s book they talked about a team that created a press release with metrics.
  3. Stickies should be grouped in clusters and labelled
  4. Teams report their outcomes and discuss how they can achieve roaring success and avoid the unmitigated disaster.

Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less
The Power of Premortems 
Risk registers and meetings are boring – try a project premortem instead …
Performing a Project Premortem

Image: The statue of Avram Iancu in Cluj-Napoca, Romania

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