ArticlePDF Available

Performing a Project Premortem

  • ShadowBox LLC & MacroCognition LLC


This publication contains reprint articles for which IEEE does not hold copyright. You may purchase this article from the Ask*IEEE Document Delivery Service at
Performing a Project
by Gary Klein
Reprint F0709A
This document is authorized for use only by Michael Davis ( Copying or posting is an infringement of copyright. Please contact or 800-988-0886 for additional copies.
harvard business review • september 2007 page 1
Performing a Project
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 ( Copying or posting is an infringement of copyright. Please contact or 800-988-0886 for additional copies.
Performing a Project Premortem
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
( 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).
Reprint F0709A
To order, see the next page
or call 800-988-0886 or 617-783-7500
or go to
This document is authorized for use only by Michael Davis ( Copying or posting is an infringement of copyright. Please contact or 800-988-0886 for additional copies.
Further Reading
To Order
Harvard Business Review
reprints and
subscriptions, call 800-988-0886 or
617-783-7500. Go to
For customized and quantity orders of
Harvard Business Review article reprints,
call 617-783-7626, or e-mai
page 3
Harvard Business Review
Paperback Series
Here are the landmark ideas—both
contemporary and classic—that have
established Harvard Business Review as required
reading for businesspeople around the globe.
Each paperback includes eight of the leading
articles on a particular business topic. The
series includes over thirty titles, including the
following best-sellers:
Harvard Business Review on Brand
Product no. 1445
Harvard Business Review on Change
Product no. 8842
Harvard Business Review on Leadership
Product no. 8834
Harvard Business Review on Managing
Product no. 9075
Harvard Business Review on Measuring
Corporate Performance
Product no. 8826
For a complete list of the
Harvard Business
Review paperback series, go to
This document is authorized for use only by Michael Davis ( Copying or posting is an infringement of copyright. Please contact or 800-988-0886 for additional copies.
... Whereas a post-mortem gathers together a group of experts to ask 'what caused the patient's death?', a pre-mortem gathers together a group of experts before the operation to imagine 'what might cause the patient's death?', and work backwards to find all the potential causes. When asked to be imaginative, participants often produce potential reasons for failure that would not have been brought forward when 'planning for success' (Klein, 2007). Governments too could benefit from pre-mortems, and perhaps even from a professional class of pre-mortem imagineers. ...
Full-text available
The losses from the global Covid-19 pandemic have been staggering—trillions in economic costs, on top of significant losses of life, health, and well-being. The world made significant and successful investments in vaccines to mitigate the pandemic, yet there were missed opportunities, as well. We review what has been learnt about the value of vaccines, the speed at which vaccines can be developed, and the optimal and ethical approaches to vaccine distribution, as well as other issues related to pandemic and emergency preparedness. Surprisingly, spending on vaccines remains far below that which would be justified by the social return. We remain poorly prepared for future pandemics and other emergencies.
... We chose a qualitative study design using focus groups, following Krueger [28], who proposed that meetings of a limited group of people with homogenous characteristics (in this case, people with expertise in water management) to discuss a researched topic, in a horizontal way, was an effective method. We also used pre-mortem analysis in the focus groups [29,30], a technique that imagines that a strategy has failed; in the first phase, the causes of failure are identified, and in the second phase, possible solutions to avoid failure are defined. ...
Full-text available
The growing scarcity of water for human consumption in southern Europe is driving today's public administrations to search for new ways of optimising its availability. Within this context, the purpose of this paper is to analyse whether citizen participation is an appropriate way of improving the management of available water, as several international organisations suggest. This study is part of a research project carried out by the University of Seville in Spain on behalf of the city of Seville's metropolitan water supply company, hereinafter EMASESA. A qualitative method is applied in this research using pre-mortem testing techniques, enabling a specific participation tool to be designed, called the EMASESA Water Observatory, which this article describes in detail. The tool produced specific measures aimed at better addressing drought situations. In view of the practical application of this newly designed tool, we conclude that citizen participation is indeed useful in identifying solutions to improve public water policies and drought management. It is also concluded that the tool's design calling for active participation is a positive factor in its application. Finally, the tool has also demonstrated that it generates knowledge that can be used to address other water-related issues and challenges, beyond those related to water availability.
This article considers the phenomenon of overconfidence whereby an individual, group or organization believes that it has more knowledge or skill in a particular domain than it actually possesses. It outlines the three distinct forms of confidence that have been identified in the literature: misestimation, misplacement and misprecision. It goes on to discuss various ways in which organizations can adapt their judgement processes to reduce the incidence of overconfidence, highlighting some real-world case studies. It ends with some observations and suggestions for future research in this complex area.
This chapter explains success and failure in large organizations along introduction to premortem analysis and its role in business success. It also sets into perspective the elements of an innovation culture withing organizations, challenges of change management as well as intrapreneurship as element for business success.
Policy Points • Hospital-at-Home (HaH) is a home-based alternative for acute care that has expanded significantly under COVID-19 regulatory flexibilities. • The post-pandemic policy agenda for HaH will require consideration of multistakeholder perspectives, including patient, caregiver, provider, clinical operations, technology, equity, legal, quality, and payer. • Key policy challenges include reaching a consensus on program standards, clarifying caregivers’ issues, creating sustainable reimbursement mechanisms, and mitigating potential equity concerns. • Key policy prescriptions include creating a national surveillance system for quality and safety, clarifying legal standards for care in the home, and deploying payment reforms through value-based models.
Premised on the idea that evaluators should be familiar with a range of approaches to program modifications, I review several existing approaches and then describe another, less well-recognized option. In this newer option, evaluators work with others to identify potentially needed adaptations for select program aspects in advance. In describing this approach, I note the general steps involved and present alternative techniques for identifying, a priori, adaptations that may come to be needed. In the final section, I discuss implications of the a priori adaptation planning approach for the fidelity–adaptation trade-off, past criticism of logic models as overly fixed and linear, potential research and evaluation questions, the development of more detailed views of programs in evaluation theory and training, and possible resistance to adaptation planning. Discussion also considers the potential future of program adaptations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.