Pre Mortem – Plan For The Worst Case Scenario

Pre Mortem – Plan For The Worst-Case Scenario

Strategic plan facilitation is a core part of my business coaching practice.

I have written previously about the importance of conducting After Action Review meetings at the conclusion of each strategic project and at the end of each quarter as part of a Quarterly Strategic Review. The AAR is a facilitated “Post Mortem” meeting to debrief and capture the lessons learned so planning and execution can be improved for future projects.

Then, at the beginning of the quarter, another proven approach to improve strategy execution is to conduct a “Pre Mortem” meeting before we commence a new project. The Pre Mortem helps teams to make better decisions when scoping out projects in the planning phase.

Pre Mortems were documented in a 2007 HBR article written by psychologist Gary Klein who states, “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 to speak up, you can improve a project’s chances of success.”

You may have seen it happen in organizations where people are shunned for “being negative” or “not a team player” when they point out the downsides of a new initiative. This is a sign of an insecure leader and a dysfunctional team. A vital part of decision making is to have (or appoint) someone to play the role of devil’s advocate.

As professor Bob Sutton of Stanford states, “Powerful and overconfident leaders often reward people who agree with them and punish those who are brave enough to disagree. The resulting corrosive conformity is evident when people don’t raise private doubts, known risks, and inconvenient facts. The world needs dreamers and their dreams. But dreams of what is possible are best balanced with hard facts and realistic projections about what is probable.”

Schedule a Pre Mortem for every new project.

At Quarterly Strategic Review sessions, I work with clients to help them choose a small handful of Strategic Projects to execute in the coming quarter. One of my favorite quotes comes from business author Jim Collins who said, “If you have more than 3 priorities, you don’t have any.”

Once they have chosen their 3 projects, we name 1 person accountable for each project. The project manager is accountable for making sure the project is accurately scoped (a list of what will, and just as importantly, what will not get done) and then managing the project to complete the agreed scope by the end of the quarter.

Either on the strategic planning day, or as soon as possible within 7 days, the project lead is tasked to complete the following:

1. Select the core members of the project team.

2. Book a recurring weekly meeting with the project team to discuss and drive the execution of the project every week

3. Conduct a Pre Mortem to finalize the project scope

How to conduct a Pre Mortem.

Here is my version of a Pre Mortem methodology that works well for the size of organizations I commonly work with.

Create a rough first draft of the project scope. Just quickly list out the big critical tasks that are known at this point – and estimate tentative due dates for these critical tasks.

Typically what happens is that people only consider the best-case scenario, and are overly optimistic with the initial due date estimates. They fall victim to the “planning fallacy”, which is our universal human tendency to overestimate the chances that good things will happen and underestimate the chances of failures, delays, and setbacks.

Document the worst-case scenario.

Ask the project team to imagine they have time travelled 3 months into the future. Unfortunately, the project is significantly behind schedule. There were delays, distractions, and interruptions. People took time off sick and went away on vacation. Everything took longer than expected. Unforeseen issues took us by surprise. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Even worse, the results are not what we hoped for. The project team is disappointed with their achievements when we meet to conduct the next Quarterly Strategic Review in 3 months’ time.

Ask everyone to individually write down their story of “what happened”, listing all the things they can think of that caused this project to fail. Set a timer for 5 minutes and get everyone to do this without talking.

Once 5 minutes are up, ask everyone to read aloud what they wrote to the group. Start with the most junior member of the team, go around the room one after another, and conclude with the team leader. Everyone needs to listen to these stories without making any comments or judgments. Don’t be defensive. Just listen.

Now, as a group, verbally work through these 3 questions one at a time and list your answers:

1. What risk factors could negatively impact or delay this project?

2. What actions could we take to reduce or mitigate these risk factors?

3. What changes do we need to make to create a more realistic Project scope?

Document the scope as a list of Tasks that are “in scope” and Tasks that are “not in scope” to be completed during this planning cycle.

Once the scope is finalized, present it to the leadership team for sign-off, and enter the Tasks in your project management software.

Due dates are “commits” not “hopes”.

Setting due dates for Projects and Tasks is a negotiation. Don’t let people be bullied into accepting deadlines that only take into account best-case scenarios, otherwise, you are setting yourself up for failure. As a manager, it is better to negotiate with your team members and agree on a completion date you can count on vs. a date that someone is not fully committed to. Otherwise, we are all deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure.

When coaching clients to set due dates I say to them, “By all means get it done sooner, but due dates are “commits”, not “hopes”, so give me a conservative and realistic due date that we can all count on.”

If you are a manager, you want firm due dates you can count on and enforce. You also want to be able to praise people for keeping their commitments to the team, and for everyone to feel like “winners” for reaching the agreed milestone at the end of each planning cycle.

Pre Mortem benefits.

The Pre Mortem exercise is designed to create psychological safety and encourage people to consider things from a negative perspective and not be ostracized for being a naysayer. It helps to reduce the likelihood of people slavishly agreeing to unrealistic expectations just to please the boss. It helps to scope out our Projects more accurately. It helps to set our Strategic Projects up to succeed right from the outset.

Studies show that scheduling the time to conduct a Pre Mortem upfront generates better decisions, more accurate project forecasts, and much more robust implementation plans.

It sounds simple, but it requires discipline to ensure the process is followed.


Until next time…