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Project Premortem: What Is It & How to Conduct It?

Updated on November 8, 2023By
Project Premortem

You may think forecasting the plausible reasons for a project’s success or failure is a waste of time—as most team members feel—but the reality is different. A project premortem meeting is more than conducting an ‘autopsy’ on the project (beforehand).

If done correctly, a project premortem meeting can prepare your team to deal with the project’s uncertainties. They can improvise their work style, mindset, and approach with collective and valuable insights.

In this guide, we will explore what a project premortem meeting is, learn about its benefits, and understand how to conduct it. Let’s go!

What is a Premortem Analysis?

A project premortem analysis is a meeting that occurs prior to a project’s start date.

Here, the whole team discusses and ‘imagines’ scenarios that may cause the project to fail. Team members are encouraged to speak freely.

All this effort is done so that the team can work backward and create a solid plan—one that will help them achieve success while eliminating potential roadblocks along the project lifecycle.

Premortem vs Postmortem: A Detailed Analysis

Now, you may be confusing a project premortem meeting with a postmortem one—understandably so.

They sound one and the same but are different and occur at different stages of a project timeline.

Here’s a quick comparison between premortem vs postmortem:

AspectPremortem MeetingPostmortem Meeting
1. PurposeTo proactively identify —and address—potential project risks before the project officially commences.

Helps anticipate challenges and devise strategies to mitigate them.

Reduces the likelihood of problems occurring during the project lifecycle.

Encourages participants to voice their concerns openly and honestly
To conduct a retrospective analysis after the project is completed.

It is geared towards evaluating:
– the project’s overall performance
– what went well
– what didn’t go as planned

– To provide insights and lessons learned from past projects and improve future projects
2. TimingAre typically held before the project starts (often in the early stages of project planning)Takes place after project closure (when all project activities are complete and deliverables have been achieved)
3. Team InvolvementInvolves the project team, key stakeholders, and, if necessary, external experts.

Encourages collective brainstorming to uncover potential challenges that might be overlooked by individual team members
Engages the project team and stakeholders.

Also includes external consultants who can provide fresh perspectives and insights based on their assessment of the project’s outcomes
4. MethodThe team typically brainstorms potential issues (and causes) via open and collaborative discussionsThe team analyzes actual project results and examines the project’s strengths as well as weaknesses.

The analysis is based on real project data and outcomes
5. Decision-MakingThe team makes decisions on how to prevent risks from occurring by addressing them proactivelyThe team makes insights-driven decisions to improve projects in the future
6. Follow-upFollowing a premortem meeting, the team implements risk mitigation strategies as part of the project planAfter a postmortem meeting, the team takes action to implement the lessons learned and best practices identified during the analysis
7. CommunicationEncourages open and candid discussions among team members as well as stakeholders; it’s essential that participants feel comfortable sharing their concernsFosters open discussions without blame or finger-pointing; the goal is to create a culture of learning and improvement

Got It. So, What’s the Difference Between Premortem and Risk Assessment?

Unlike premortem vs postmortem, premortem and risk assessment serve the same end goal: to identify and prevent project risks proactively. 

However, during project risk assessment, the team uses a project register to monitor potential project risks. If the risk comes to pass, your project team members will be prepared to tackle it efficiently.

In contrast, during a project premortem meeting, the team imagines scenarios where a project has failed. So, here, the team focuses on first visualizing the risks instead of managing them.

Think of it as a blueprint for teams to structure their mindset and be better prepared for risks instead of circling around “what ifs.” 

With the data gathered, the project manager might build a project risk assessment plan for when the going gets tough.

Performing a Project Premortem: A Step-by-Step Guide

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how a project premortem works:

Step 1: Develop a Skeleton Project Plan

Typically speaking, a project premortem begins as soon as the team has been briefed about the project plan —which must include the project’s objectives, scope and budget, success metrics, stakeholders and roles, timeline, communication plan, and key milestones as well as deliverables at the very least.

You can use real-time “Collaborative Docs” like the one offered by Nifty to build out your project plan together:

Nifty empowers you to choose between a Nifty Doc, a Google Doc, a Spreadsheet, or even a Presentation, which easily syncs with your Google Drive.

This final step is critical as it allows the team to get a sense of what’s happening with a project. Here’s an example of a project plan in Nifty that offers a bird’s eye view of everything that’s happening at once:

Using Nifty for project pre mortem analysis
Task view in Nifty

Signup for Nifty to run your next project pre mortum meeting.

Step 2: Identify and Invite Stakeholders

Next, you want to think about all the internal and external stakeholders you wish to invite. Include your clients, shareholders, cross-department working partners, and so on.

You can create a RACI chart to understand who to invite.

Step 3: Recognize Risks and Fracture Points

The most important part of a project premortem meeting is asking the right questions in a logical sequence.

Once the project lead declares that the project has failed, the premortem meeting begins.

Here’s a checklist of helpful questions to use as your sounding board when recognizing the potential risks:

  • What factors can make us miss our deadline?
  • What possible scenarios could go wrong with this project?
  • What should we do to ensure that the project is on time?
  • What are the gaps in tools, technology, resources, and people that can lead to project failure?
  • What lessons have we learned from past projects that we can use in this project?
  • What is the team most worried and excited about?

The team can take 10-15 minutes to jot down the answers relating to why they think the project failed —either on a virtual whiteboard or on paper.

Pro tip: Reassure team members to be honest. They should be able to write freely about issues that would otherwise never have crossed anyone’s mind. There’s little to no need to be diplomatic. 

Step 4: Categorize and Discuss Risks

Once all the risks have been identified, it’s time to prioritize them based on severity and likelihood.

The idea is to work together to categorize similar ideas/risks into lists so that it becomes easier to tackle them. Make sure all the ideas have been covered and are properly recorded.

You can ask the teams to vote on risks with the highest threat – this makes the process of prioritizing them a tad bit easier.

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Once the risks are prioritized, move them to the “To discuss” column so that the team can collectively work backward to build a robust mitigative strategy.

Step 5: Develop Smart Strategies

Set a timer of 15 minutes at this stage, and let the team have a brainstorming session, on action items that can effectively address the risks.

Step 6: Review and Revise the Project Plan

Remember, against each action item outlined; you must have an owner and a deadline mapped out. 

You must also recap all the action items with the team to reiterate who is working on what and when.

Pro tip: Make sure to save the premortem discussion in a place that your team can access with one click. You must also track your action items at all times (such as within your project dashboard), like the one shown below:

project overview in Nifty

Nifty enables you to toggle specific project modules on and off to selectively gain insights within the project. Moreover, project teams’ members can also arrange their project home screen to fit their roles and needs in a project.

Advantages of Performing a Project Premortem Meeting 

A premortem meeting prevents project failure by assuming that the project has gone sideways.

As the team imagines all possible scenarios that did go South, they start working backward to get ahead of possible risks and challenges.

The benefits of a premortem meeting include the following:

  • Getting prospective hindsight: The Harvard Business Review claims that “prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.”
  • Working with caution, not overconfidence: A project may fail due to many reasons. A premortem gives them the platform to speak up about risks without bias or fear of judgment. 
  • Involving cross-functional teams = Getting 360-degree perspectives: The beauty of project premortem meetings is their ability to involve diverse stakeholders from different functions, teams, and departments. This means you’ll be able to get more inclusive and well-rounded insights into your project’s ‘supposed’ failures.
  • Avoiding the chances of conducting a painful postmortem: As the team collectively describes risks that no one thought of earlier on, the team members become more confident of their decisions once the project is underway. As the members continuously learn from each other and work proactively, the chances of initiating a time-consuming postmortem meeting reduce drastically.

A Premortem Example in Action

In a project premortem meeting, you imagine:

  • That the project has failed at the beginning of a project
  • Why the project went off-track
  • What can be done differently in future projects to prevent repeating the same mistakes

Let’s look at a pre mortem example

Picture this: You’re about to start a new high-profile project, and you want to ensure its success from the very start.

This is where a project premortem comes in—that’s right, you conduct this meeting at the very beginning to identify problems and potential pitfalls before they become real problems.

So, here’s an example of how to execute a project premortem effectively:

1. Assemble Your Team: The first thing you need to do is get everyone together, including key stakeholders. Getting the team’s collective perspectives will help you spot issues that might otherwise have gone amiss if you were working in isolation.

2. Set the Stage: Explaining the purpose of the premortem sets the right expectations in the attendee’s mind (and the tone of the meeting). Be mindful of one thing – Reiterate that you are not predicting failure and instilling a negative or pessimistic vibe. Instead, as the project lead, your goal is to proactively extract–and accept–possible vulnerabilities that might hinder project success and tackle issues with a positive, proactive mindset. 

3. Encourage Team Members to Imagine the Absolute Worst: You want your next team member to go all out and imagine that the project has a future. Ask them about their viewpoint on what went wrong and why. Most importantly, motivate them and ask them not to hold back – the more open and honest the conversations, the better chance of the project being a raging success.

4. Dive Deep and Then Dive Deeper Some More: At this point, it’s time to dig into the specifics. Probe like you’ve never probed before. You need to pick the team’s brains about what might have caused the project to fail. Consider the risks. Talk about the uncertainties. The meeting is your playground. 

5. Prioritize, Address, Mitigate with Agility: The next step is to prioritize the issues that surfaced based on their impact and likelihood. Remember, for each high-priority issue, you need to develop proactive mitigation strategies. So, you’ll need to discuss how you can prevent these potential problems from occurring or minimize their impact altogether.

6. Document the Action Plan: Finally, you want to ensure that all identified risks (and mitigation strategies) are being documented. This will serve as a valuable reference point as the project progresses. You can assign the responsibility for implementing these mitigation strategies to different team members. Just make it crystal-clear as to who will take charge so that nothing is left to chance.

Actionable Prompts for Premortem Templates

Use the following premortem templates and actionable prompts to prepare your team for every twist and turn in the project:

CharacteristicActionable PromptsQuestions to Ask
1. Project OverviewProvide a brief project overview.What are the project’s goals, scope, and objectives?
2. Imagine FailureAsk your team to envision the causes of project failure.What does project failure look like in different scenarios (think: missed deadlines, budget overruns, stakeholder dissatisfaction, etc.)?
3. Identify Root CausesPrompt the team to identify the root cause of the potential failure.What factors contributed to the failure scenarios? Was it related to technology, team, people, budget, and so on?
4. Dependency AnalysisHave the team pinpoint critical dependencies within the project.What are the critical dependencies (and potential points of failure) associated with these dependencies?
5. Risk AssessmentInquire about potential risks and challenges.What are the internal and external risks that could affect project success (read: resource constraints, market changes, technological challenges)?
6. Impact and LikelihoodAsk the team to assess the impact and likelihood of project failure.For each identified risk/ failure scenario, what is the estimated impact on the project? Plus, what is the likelihood of it occurring?
7. Mitigation StrategiesChallenge the team to brainstorm mitigation strategies.What can be done to prevent the high-impact, high-likelihood risks from materializing?
8. Communication PlanDiscuss how the team will communicate the insights.How will you communicate the insights from the premortem to stakeholders, team members, and anyone else involved in the project?
9. Feedback LoopEncourage in-depth and honest feedback in the premortem process.Are there any improvements that can be made to the premortem process for future projects?

Nifty Helps You Prepare for the Worst: With Confidence, Without Blind Spots

Hypothetically preparing for risks—or conducting a premortem meeting—at the outset drives successful projects.

If your team is able to think outside the box and imagine all possible scenarios during the project premortem meeting, you’ll have a higher chance of ensuring project success.

One such free project management software that can help you to work with focus, speed, and efficiency is Nifty. 

For instance, you can leverage the “Discussions” feature to collaborate with the team virtually and encourage team members to pencil in their ideas on the virtual whiteboard:

You can also get a bird’s eye view of the project roadmap to ensure you’ve imagined potential issues across all key deliverables throughout the project lifecycle:

In addition to this, Nifty offers a host of other project management-centric features for frictionless project delivery.

Address project issues head-on with Nifty and set the stage for a smoother project journey. Try Nifty for free.

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