Running a Pre-Mortem

As part of starting up a new product team we thought that it could be a good idea to start off by running a Pre-Mortem on the first day. I picked up the exercise from Dave Gray’s Gamestorming book. According to the description, running a Pre-Mortem is deceptively simple. That turned out to be true.

The normal thing is to run a Post-Mortem after a project or is completed, to investigate what went wrong. A Pre-Mortem on the other hand is run at the start of a project or on the startup of a new team. The goal is to use the collective experience of the team to dig up potential risks. You can read more about the Pre-Mortem exercise on the gamestorming website

Running the exercise

We run the pre-mortem exercise after some initial sessions which focused on the why and the what of the project. Hence, the team had a basic understanding of the work ahead, but not a lot of details.
To open up the exercise I started with the following question:

“How will this end in a failure?”

We spent 10 minutes alone, picturing ourselves at the end of a failed project and writing down what we saw on stickies, based on our past experiences. Next, we presented the stickies and put them on the glass wall. Quite a few stickies were generated so we decided to use Affinity mapping to group the risks together in categories. We ended up with 5 different clusters and gave each of the category a name, they were as follows:

  • Bad expectation management
  • Lack of focus
  • Poor communication with rest of organization
  • Underestimating technical challenges

We then created a list of actions to take in order to mitigate these risks.

Revisiting the risks

Today, 2 weeks later, we revisited the list and again asked the question:

“With the information we have today, how can this go wrong”

A few new risks were identified, and a couple of action items from the original list were removed


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