Tag Archives: pre-mortem

Three Tips for ‘lightweight’ projects

Large or expensive projects often have project managers, but smaller, shorter projects with just a handful of people on the team may not have anyone with formal project management ability. Here are a few tips for effectiveness in that situation:

1. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

24% of projects fail outright, but given a new project people typically like to get stuck in believing they’ll be successful. Perhaps they will but stats suggest that you should spend 20% of the duration of the project planning it. Seems counter-intuitive, but many mistakes are avoidable by thinking things through in advance. For a 3 month project, that means the necessary planning time is 12 days, that might feel like an unwelcome delay, but the impact on project effectiveness will be dramatic.

2. Pre-mortems

People love to be optimistic, a pre-mortem does the opposite. A post-mortem is looking at things after they have happened for success and failure. A pre-mortem considers that the project has failed (an assumption) and invites participants to look at why that’s the case. The assumption of failure frees people up to poke holes in the plan and think about a better outcome.

3. Communication

Most project failures are due to lack of communication, people don’t communicate enough and assume that just because an email has been sent it has been read. Just as in consumer marketing people need to see a message 3 times before they remember it, make sure you are repeating your message.

Risk Management: The Pre-Mortem Approach

As I mention in my book post-mortems are a critical tool in enabling improved project performance over time. Determining areas of success and areas of weakness sow the seeds for improvements in subsequent projects. However, post-mortems are, by definition, only successful correcting mistakes after they happen. That is to say a mistake must happen (or be narrowly avoided) at least once in order for the organization to learn from it, and take whatever corrective action is necessary. Experience may be the best teacher, but that can also prove expensive. Pre-mortems offer a different solution, correcting problems in advance, and eliminating the risk in the first place.

A pre-mortem involves getting project stakeholders and participants into a room before a project starts, making the rather bleak assumption that the project was not successful and then determining the cause. By assuming that the project has already failed, it makes it much easier for everyone in the room to be creative in pointing to potential problems and shortcomings. Without the safety of a pre-mortem environment, participants may be unwilling to point out flaws due to hierarchical structures, or a lack of willingness to be viewed as pessimist. With a pre-mortem, failings can be addressed in advance, or if that isn’t possible, key areas of risk can be highlighted for appropriate mitigation and response strategies to be put in place.

I believe Gary Klein originally coined the term pre-mortem and that article is here, which builds on the work of Deborah J. Mitchell, Jay Russo and Nancy Pennington.