How Could This Have Been Prevented? The Art of the Pre-Mortem

In the world of disaster response, teams engage in something called a “hot wash” after each deployment. If something went wrong, we ask ourselves: How could this have been prevented? It’s a question that helps us mitigate crises rather than simply respond to them. Sometimes, if a responder is about to do something particularly ill-advised, say in a social context, another responder will ask them, “How could this accident have been prevented?” as they walk towards potential harm or embarrassment.

As someone who has done crisis response for the past eight years, the pre-mortem we held on my third day at Truss made me feel right at home. It was the last day of an intensive kickoff event for our DOD project (more about how we won that here). Our engineering architect Nick Twyman led the assembled team in a session to brainstorm issues which might be severe enough to tank the project. He opened with the prompt, “Imagine you’re presenting to the entire company 12 months from now and must explain why this project completely failed.”

Engaging in this practice:

  • Surfaces potential issues before they become problematic.
  • Prevents team members from suffering in silence or needlessly worrying.
  • Replaces reaction with strategy.

We’ve already benefited immensely from this practice. For instance, we learned to identify and engage early with stakeholders who otherwise might have been invisible until too late. This has allowed us to pay attention to serious concerns while also staying focused on the emerging roadmap for the project.

Where did this idea come from?

Our CTO, Mark Ferlatte, learned about the practice from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. He noted that it “felt incredibly weird the first time you do it.” The book covers different modes of thinking and responding to what feels immediate versus the strategic, tricks to help you move from reacting to planning, as well as how to be self-aware when in difficult conversations.

We’ve developed our own flow for pre-mortems, and have benefited in various ways.  In one instance, the team indicated that they were feeling unsure about being able to track things properly. This feedback resulted in an ad hoc training session on our task tracking tool with positive results.

How do I do it?

You, too, can avoid delays, derailments, and failures by following this process. Whether you refer to it as “forecasting” or “generalized anxiety,” there are a few simple steps.

First, think about when it makes sense to have a pre-mortem. We do ours at the end of a project kickoff (when folks have the project fresh in their minds but haven’t yet started building habits and opinions about how things “should” be). You can also run more than one for any given project. It’s particularly helpful to do during sprint planning sessions or prior to irrevocable commitments (before we sign the contract, before we begin execution on the contract, before we go live with the product).

Don’t lead the session by asking a broad question like: How might this go wrong?  Instead, be very specific. We used the prompt mentioned above, emphasizing two important factors. “Imagine you’re presenting to the entire company 12 months from now and must explain why this project completely failed.” These two aspects helped people move beyond generalized anxiety and into thinking strategically about what they are unlikely to be able to adapt to themselves. In a larger group, give everyone sticky notes and about five minutes to write down their thoughts, then group their ideas into categories while reading them out loud. In a smaller group, take a minute or so to think about it, and then go around in a circle to hear what folks came up with.

Some of the concerns raised might not surprise you. Ideally, you’re already mitigating risk around the topics some people bring up. Sometimes, though, someone will say something new or extremely obvious and scary (for example: “None of us have ever published a book” when the project is to write a book). Mark treats these concerns very seriously and attempts to mitigate them as quickly as possible (for example: hire an agent to help us navigate book publishing).

We found that those obvious and scary observations were more likely to come from junior rather than senior employees. Senior people often overlooked obvious risks because they had “always managed before.” Junior team members were justifiably concerned when they felt like the project was missing key factors, but they wouldn’t speak up if their concerns were dismissed. Yet another reason to be sure your environment is open and safe for employees to voice their concerns.

Good luck out there!

Pre-mortems are a tool to start thinking about the future and to do so strategically rather than reactively. This helps teams avoid pitfalls and focus their work. Pre-mortems are easy to hold and can happen at multiple points during a project’s lifespan.

May all of your difficulties be novel, and good luck out there!