The Pre-Mortem: Your Secret Weapon for Project Success

Ever launched a product only to watch it crash and burn spectacularly? Servers fail, bugs abound, and social media is aflame with customer outrage. It’s a nightmare, right? What if you could prevent this fiasco before it even starts? Enter the pre-mortem, a proactive approach to project management that can save your bacon.

The Pre-Mortem Process: A Hypothetical Time Machine

Think of a pre-mortem as your project’s hypothetical time machine. Your team gathers at the project’s inception, imagines it’s six months in the future, and your project has failed miserably. Now, work backward from that dismal future and pinpoint what went wrong.

The Risk Categories: Tigers, Paper Tigers, and Elephants

Shreyas Doshi, a product management veteran from Google, Twitter, and Stripe, categorizes potential risks into three groups:

  • Tigers: Critical threats that can kill your project (e.g., major security breaches).
  • Paper Tigers: Threats that seem terrifying but are manageable (e.g., minor launch delays).
  • Elephants: The glaring issues everyone knows but ignores (e.g., unrealistic budget).

Identify these risks, prioritize them by impact and likelihood, and then develop action plans to tackle the biggest threats.

Benefits of Pre-Mortems: Beyond Risk Mitigation

Pre-mortems aren’t just about dodging bullets. They offer several other advantages:

  • Psychological Safety: The hypothetical scenario creates a judgment-free zone for team members to voice concerns.
  • Shared Vocabulary: It fosters a common language for discussing potential problems, making communication more effective.
  • Proactive Problem Solving: By identifying risks early, you can address them before they escalate, saving time and resources.

Scenario: The Pre-Mortem That Saved a Launch

Consider a team ready to launch a new e-commerce platform. During their pre-mortem, they identified a “tiger” risk: a potential server overload on Black Friday. They also spotted an “elephant”: no plan for handling customer support inquiries during peak traffic. Armed with this foresight, the team scaled up server capacity and beefed up customer support staff. The launch was a success, avoiding a PR disaster.

How to Implement Pre-Mortems: A Step-by-Step Guide

Choose a Template

Shreyas Doshi created a handy Coda doc template for pre-mortems. Alternatively, find other templates online or develop your own.

Invite Key Stakeholders

Include reps from all relevant functions: product, engineering, marketing, sales, and customer support.

Set the Stage

Start by describing the hypothetical failure scenario.

Brainstorm Risks

Give everyone time to silently brainstorm potential risks.

Categorize and Prioritize

Discuss the risks as a group, categorize them as tigers, paper tigers, or elephants, and prioritize the most significant ones.

Develop Action Plans

Create specific action plans to address the top risks.

Assign Ownership

Assign responsibility for each action plan to specific individuals.

Follow Up

Regularly review the action plans to ensure progress.

Real-World Impact: Why Pre-Mortems Work

According to a study by the Project Management Institute, organizations that proactively manage risks are 2.5 times more likely to meet their project goals.

Common Questions About Pre-Mortems

1. What’s the difference between a pre-mortem and a post-mortem?

A pre-mortem happens before a project starts, identifying potential failures. A post-mortem occurs after, analyzing what went wrong.

2. How often should we conduct pre-mortems?

For critical projects, conduct a pre-mortem at the start and revisit it at key milestones.

3. Who should lead the pre-mortem session?

A neutral facilitator can help ensure balanced participation and keep the discussion focused.

4. Can pre-mortems be used for small projects?

Absolutely! Pre-mortems can be scaled to fit any project size.

5. How do you handle resistance to pre-mortems?

Explain the benefits clearly and share success stories from other projects.

6. What tools can assist in conducting pre-mortems?

Templates from Coda, Google Docs, or dedicated project management software can be helpful.

7. Can pre-mortems replace other risk management practices?

No, they should complement other practices like risk assessments and regular project reviews.


Pre-mortems are a simple yet powerful tool to significantly improve your project’s chances of success. By anticipating and addressing potential problems early, you can avoid costly mistakes and ensure a smoother path forward. Don’t wait for disaster to strike – start using pre-mortems today!

Got questions or insights? Drop a comment below and let’s chat! And if you found this post helpful, give it a like and share it with your network. Stay tuned for more tips and tricks to ace your project management game!

Data Chart: Pre-Mortem Benefits Overview

Psychological SafetyCreates a safe space for voicing concerns without judgment.
Shared VocabularyProvides a common language for discussing potential problems.
Proactive Problem SolvingIdentifies risks early, allowing for proactive measures to mitigate them.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

Stay ahead of the curve and make pre-mortems a standard part of your project management toolkit.