Pre-Mortem (or How to Cheat Death)

Project failure often occurs, not because of missing knowledge, but because of what we think we know that simply isn’t true. These flawed thoughts are known as assumptions, and they often cause great projects to crash and burn.

Conducting a pre-mortem on your project will help you avoid falling in this trap. A pre-mortem is the opposite of a project post-mortem. A post-mortem identifies mistakes after a project has failed. In a pre-mortem, however, you identify the major causes of project failure in a creative way before the start of a project by imagining the project has already failed. This exercise enables you to anticipate roadblocks beforehand (thus cheating sudden project death) and significantly increase the success rate of your endeavor. 

Here is how a pre-mortem team exercise works:

  • Imagine five years in the future. Your project has failed so miserably that you you’ve been asked for an interview by the Harvard Business Review to talk about the reasons for your failure.
  • The project team divides into small subgroups to discuss what would be said in this interview.
  • All subgroups then report on their insights. The total feedback will give a clear picture of the main internal project risks. Steps to mitigate these risks can then be incorporated into the project design from the start.


If you conduct a pre-mortem with a group of external subject experts, you will also quickly identify not only the main risks, but also the hidden opportunities. This knowledge will often be a great eye opener and will be invaluable to almost guarantee project success.

Photo Credit: iStockPhoto/Andreas Häuslbetz

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