Premortems are powerful and underutilized

Among the most powerful of team building and communication tools a leader can have is the retrospective (known in some circles as “postmortem” or “root cause analysis”). During the retrospective, the team talks about as a group and without blame of individuals what went well, what didn’t, and how they can improve.

Equally powerful is the premortem, or retrospective before the project starts. The way this works is the facilitator of the premortem opens with some variant of the following:

You’re probably wondering why I’ve gathered you all here today. ominous stare sweeping the crowd here It is 1 year in the future, and the project has failed. We are here to discover why, so we can gauge the risks.

From there, lead the team through brainstorming ideas, all along the lines of “why did this project fail”. Normally I try to do this for 10-15 minutes, at which point we’ll shift gears from “making up reasons” to “sorting through them”. After this, I normally move to a lean coffee format to discuss the items.

Here are a few things that came up during a premortem I lead at a Scouting planning meeting about a backpacking trip:

  • We got get lost and were late for dinner
  • We had inexperienced Scouts along who tried to carry too much gear with them
  • We forgot the food
  • We had experienced Scouts who didn’t watch over the inexperienced Scouts to make sure they were OK, and the inexperienced Scouts weren’t OK.
  • We didn’t have enough tents for all participants

We’ll walk through the first 3 (we solved all of them) and how they (almost) were solved by the actions we took beforehand.

#1: We got lost and were late for dinner

This is a very real fear for a 14 year old. What is worse than missing a meal?! Answer: Missing more than one.

What could we do to prevent this from happening?

  • We could distribute copies of maps to multiple people, so we didn’t have a single point of failure
  • We could make sure we stuck together as a group
    • This prevents us from being late for dinner, not so much for getting lost. If everyone is together, then we could stop and have dinner at any point in time, since we’d have everyone and everything we needed.
  • We could have someone hike the trail the weekend before so we had someone familiar with the route
    • We ended up not being able to do this, but it was a good planned item.

#2: We had inexperienced Scouts along who tried to carry too much gear with them

This is really bad when you’re carrying everything for 10 miles. It can ruin an otherwise glorious weekend, because if you’re carrying too much gear with you down the trail, you will get exhausted (and be in pain) before the end.

We could prevent this from happening by:

  • Having experienced Scouts check backpacks before leaving on the trip, and redistribute or move gear as necessary
    • We did this, and it helped a lot.
  • Sending Scouts with a packing list that covers recommended gear
    • This is something that we had done before (to great success) but slipped through the cracks on this trip.

#3: We forgot the food

Forgetting the food is great while you’re hiking (less to carry!) but a problem when you need to eat (after you didn’t get lost and were on time for dinner)

We solved for this by:

  • Creating a pre-departure checklist that included the item “Make sure everyone has their food”
  • Calling the folks who were doing the shopping 3 days before and reminding them
    • Most of them knew to expect a call and had bought all the food the night before we called

I hope this example of how a premortem can help you as you plan anything, ranging from campouts to software projects.

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