The PreMortem – anticipating a plan’s weaknesses

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 10, 2006
Filed in Collaboration, Communication

One of the techniques I’ve recently introduced to my projects is what Gary Klein calls a PreMortem. As we all know, a postmortem helps us learn why a patient died. A PreMortem explores why a project might die in the future. Here’s how Gary describes the approach. I find it works well after a planning process is complete. It injects an additional level of realism into the plans.

Step 1: Preparation. Team members take out sheets of paper and get relaxed in their chairs. They should already be familiar with the plan, or else have the plan described to them so they can understand what is supposed to be happening.

Step 2: Imagine a fiasco. When I conduct the PreMortem, I say I am looking into a crystal ball and, oh no, I am seeing that the project has failed. It isn’t a simple failure either. It is a total, embarrassing, devastating failure. The people on the team are no longer talking to each other. Our company is not talking to the sponsors. Things have gone as wrong as they could. However, we could only afford an inexpensive model of the crystal ball so we cannot make out the reason for the failure. Then I ask, “What could have caused this?”

Step 3: Generate reasons for failure. The people on the team spend the next three minuted writing down all the reasons why they believe the failure occurred. Here is where intuitions of the team members come into play. Each person has a different set of experiences, a different set of scars, and a different mental model to bring to this task. You want to see what the collective knowledge in the room can produce.

Step 4: Consolidate the lists. When each member of the group is done writing, the facilitator goes around the room, asking each person to state one item from his or her list. Each item is recorded in a whiteboard. This process continues until every member of the group has revealed every item on their list. By the end of this step, you should have a comprehensive list of the group’s concerns with the plan as hand.

Step 5: Revisit the plan. The team can address the two or three items of greatest concern, and then schedule another meeting to discuss ideas for avoiding or minimising other problems.

Step 6: Periodically review the list. Some project leaders take out the list every the list every three to four months to keep the spectre of failure fresh, and re-sensitise the team to the problems that may be emerging. (pp 89–90)

Klein, G. (2003). Intuition at Work: Why Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Better at What You Do. New York, Currency Doubleday.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. “Pre mortem” – and I’ve just been reading Philip K Dick’s “Minority Report”, which talks all about “pre crime” and precognition… Amazing what insights and knowledge you can gain when you simply turn things around…

  2. Anuradha says:

    This is a great tool! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Arthur May says:

    How can I have the entire Pre-Portem analysis.

  4. Hi Arthur, not sure what you are asking for. Can you please expand a little on your request?

  5. Joseph says:

    In a way, it’s very similar to risk-anlysis process. A brainstorming in which risks are assembled, analyzed, ranked, and then bing tracked.
    How do you define the difference?

  6. Greg says:

    In the world of Information Technology we call this “disaster planning” (or the term I like; “gone to hell” plan).
    Watch the news. Where there is a fiasco, planners assumed failure was not possible.
    When I discuss disaster planning, I start with the question “What is the worst that could happen with your computers?” The rest of the discussion is prompts so they figure out the best answers.
    For example:
    Q: “What is the worst that could happen with your computers?”
    A: “They are all unusable (due to theft, fire, or natural disaster) at once.”
    Q: “Why is that bad?”
    A: “We lose all of our data.”
    Q: “How could you keep from losing all your data?”
    A: “Save it to a disc and store off site.”
    It is basically asking Toyoda’s “5 Whys” about an event that has yet to happen.

  7. Kim says:

    I love this and quite honestly this is how I think. One of the reasons I chose to jump out of corporate America is because I witnessed countless “train wrecks” on projects that I saw coming from a mile away. What I find is that many management teams would never offer their team a forum like this to discuss what can potentially go wrong with “OUR” plan. I like it though and it would definitely save a lot of money and time in the end if more companies would adopt this way of thinking and doing! Thanks for sharing!

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