In crime, forensics, and on systems/infrastructure development teams you’ll often hear a call for post-mortems. After a burglary, death, or system-wide site outage - a post-mortem in a healthy organization is called to identify the underlying root cause of the problem and remediation steps are taken to prevent a similar failure in the future. In the army this is called an After-Action Report (AAR). In some organizations they are called retrospectives or learning reviews.
Most people have heard of post-mortems in the morbid, literal use of the term: an examination done on a body to determine the cause of death. Most people have never heard of the concept of a pre-mortem. This is a technique that has saved Next Big Sound hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless man-hours over the years.
At the beginning of a large, complex project a pre-mortem is called with everyone involved.
- The meeting should include everyone involved with the project, from sales and executives, to the engineers actually building the software.
- A future-state is painted in which the project that is about to begin is completed but it is an unmitigated disaster. We’re talking about a front-page WSJ-size failure.
- Everyone takes 5 minutes on their own and writes down the reasons that this project will have blown up in such a disastrous way. The solitary writing is done to prevent groupthink.
- One-by-one around the room everyone takes turns reading their reasons and suggesting any remediation steps if they have them.
- If someone says one of your reasons you add the sticky notes together.
- The person leading the project organizes all the notes together and makes sure that the biggest risk factors are prioritized, addressed, and tackled early in the project plan.
A few quick notes. I cannot overstate how terrifying an exercise this is to conduct as it's goal is to list out everything that could possibly go wrong with an important project. As CEO of Next Big Sound I would sit in these rooms and hear worst-case scenarios that I didn’t even dream up in the middle of those nights when all my worst fears were playing out.
There needs to be a tremendous amount of trust in the room in order for this to be done effectively. If people don’t feel safe talking about their work or potential issues then some of the riskiest parts of the project might not be exposed, defeating the entire purpose of the exercise. This is one part of a toolkit that project leads at Next Big Sound use, we try not to prescribe this too often but remind our team leads to lean on this for large, critical projects or if they are anxious about any part of the upcoming initiative.
Here is an HBR article on project pre-mortems if you want to read more about it: https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem