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Performing a Project Premortem

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F
ORETHOUGHT
G
RIST
Performing a Project
Pre
mortem
by Gary Klein
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harvard business review • september 2007 page 1
COPYRIGHT © 2007 HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PUBLISHING CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
F
ORETHOUGHT
G
RIST
Performing a Project
Pre
mortem
by Gary Klein
Projects fail at a spectacular rate. One reason
is that too many people are reluctant to speak
up about their reservations during the all-
important planning phase. By making it safe
for dissenters who are knowledgeable about
the undertaking and worried about its weak-
nesses to speak up, you can improve a project’s
chances of success.
Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J.
Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo,
of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the
University of Colorado, found that prospec-
tive hindsight—imagining that an event has
already occurred—increases the ability to
correctly identify reasons for future outcomes
by 30%. We have used prospective hind-
sight to devise a method called a premortem,
which helps project teams identify risks at
the outset.
A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of
a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical set-
ting allows health professionals and the family
to learn what caused a patient’s death. Every-
one benefits except, of course, the patient. A
premortem in a business setting comes at the
beginning of a project rather than the end, so
that the project can be improved rather than
autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session,
in which project team members are asked
what might go wrong, the premortem operates
on the assumption that the “patient” has died,
and so asks what did go wrong. The team
members’ task is to generate plausible reasons
for the project’s failure.
A typical premortem begins after the team
has been briefed on the plan. The leader starts
the exercise by informing everyone that the
project has failed spectacularly. Over the next
few minutes those in the room independently
write down every reason they can think of for
the failure—especially the kinds of things they
ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential prob-
lems, for fear of being impolitic. For example,
in a session held at one Fortune 50–size com-
pany, an executive suggested that a billion-
dollar environmental sustainability project had
“failed” because interest waned when the CEO
retired. Another pinned the failure on a dilu-
tion of the business case after a government
agency revised its policies.
Next the leader asks each team member,
starting with the project manager, to read one
reason from his or her list; everyone states a
different reason until all have been recorded.
After the session is over, the project manager
reviews the list, looking for ways to strengthen
the plan.
In a session regarding a project to make
state-of-the-art computer algorithms available
to military air-campaign planners, a team
member who had been silent during the previ-
ous lengthy kickoff meeting volunteered that
one of the algorithms wouldn’t easily fit on cer-
tain laptop computers being used in the field.
Accordingly, the software would take hours to
run when users needed quick results. Unless
the team could find a workaround, he argued,
the project was impractical. It turned out that
the algorithm developers had already cre-
ated a powerful shortcut, which they had
been reluctant to mention. Their shortcut was
substituted, and the project went on to be
highly successful.
In a session assessing a research project in a
different organization, a senior executive sug-
gested that the project’s “failure” occurred
because there had been insufficient time to
prepare a business case prior to an upcoming
corporate review of product initiatives. During
the entire 90-minute kickoff meeting, no one
had even mentioned any time constraints. The
project manager quickly revised the plan to
take the corporate decision cycle into account.
Although many project teams engage in
prelaunch risk analysis, the premortem’s pro-
spective hindsight approach offers benefits
that other methods don’t. Indeed, the premor-
tem doesn’t just help teams to identify poten-
tial problems early on. It also reduces the kind
of damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed
by people who are overinvested in a project.
Moreover, in describing weaknesses that no
one else has mentioned, team members feel
valued for their intelligence and experience,
This document is authorized for use only by Michael Davis (MDavis@DrillScience.com). Copying or posting is an infringement of copyright. Please contact
customerservice@harvardbusiness.org or 800-988-0886 for additional copies.
Performing a Project Premortem
F
ORETHOUGHT
G
RIST
harvard business review • september 2007 page 2
and others learn from them. The exercise also
sensitizes the team to pick up early signs of
trouble once the project gets under way. In the
end, a premortem may be the best way to cir-
cumvent any need for a painful postmortem.
Gary Klein
(gary@decisionmaking.com) is the chief sci-
entist of Klein Associates, a division of Applied Research
Associates, in Fairborn, Ohio. He is the author of Sources
of Power: How People Make Decisions (MIT Press, 1998)
and The Power of Intuition (Doubleday, 2004).
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