Anticipating roadblocks before they arise is an everyday concern for project managers.

While issues and problems are routine in project lifecycles, you can still work to prevent them. Conducting a premortem is one way to forecast challenges that could disrupt your team’s productivity. When you envision potential failure scenarios ahead of project kickoff, you can prepare for possible hurdles, deliver better outcomes, and reduce stress on your team.

Learn how premortems can benefit your management process and help you circumnavigate project speedbumps.

What’s a premortem?

A premortem analysis is a way to look ahead to a project’s conclusion, letting you imagine scenarios that could cause your team to miss objectives and fail to deliver quality results. Working backward from the hypothetical point of failure helps you and your team pinpoint potential risks that could derail your progress and prepare solutions for avoiding them.

By proactively identifying and ranking flaws in the project plan, team members can take preventative action to keep work on track and increase the likelihood of success.

Why is a premortem important?

Premortem meetings are unique among other risk assessment tools because they provide a reverse timeline, beginning with a conclusion and working backward rather than chronologically. By flipping perspectives, premortems leverage hindsight to remove bias and reduce overconfidence that could hinder the effectiveness of other risk evaluation techniques. And according to scientist Gary Klein, using the prospective hindsight method improves a team’s ability to identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.

Premortems also offer:

  • Alignment: By flagging potential risks, team members are more aware of roadblocks and improving contributing factors.
  • Perspective: The premortem exercise gathers a cross-functional team of stakeholders with different experiences and points of view. Participants’ unique perspectives can provide deeper insight into potential challenges.
  • Reduced stigma: Team members are often reluctant to bring up the possibility of project failure. By discussing scenarios where failure has already occurred, stakeholders might feel more confident voicing their concerns.
  • Unrestricted expression: Premortems encourage participants to become devil’s advocates, reducing the effect of groupthink on the project plan and promoting out-of-the-box creativity.

Who is involved in a premortem?

Managers conduct premortems with the core team, cross-functional working partners, and anyone with insight into project failure. Inviting as many internal perspectives as possible ensures a robust analysis to identify more risks and implement prevention strategies.

External sponsors and executive stakeholders don’t need to be involved because they’re less active in day-to-day project activities. If you aren’t sure who to invite, create or consult a RACI chart.

Premortems versus postmortems

When dealing with mortems, pre and post are separate functions with very different goals.

A premortem occurs before project launch. It aims to proactively assess the risk of failure and implement a plan to avoid adverse outcomes.

Conversely, postmortems evaluate the entire project development process, issue log, and outcomes upon delivery. The exercise prompts a discussion about what went right, what went wrong, and the lessons learned so that teams avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Premortem versus project risk management

In project management, risk assessment and premortem exercises are very similar, helping identify and prevent adverse consequences arising from unaddressed risks.

The primary difference between the two processes is their approach.

Project risk assessment uses a risk register to document and monitor potential threats. If a risk becomes a reality, the team has an action plan to mitigate the effect with minimal business impact.

Premortems are less about identifying and managing risks than creatively visualizing threats to a project’s ultimate success. They let the team conceptualize proactive ways to avoid a negative overall outcome or reduce the likelihood of problems. During the exercise, the project manager logs these steps in a project risk management plan.

How to conduct a project premortem: 7 steps

You should hold your premortem meeting once the project plan is in place. The brainstorming and prioritization process should take 1–3 hours depending on the project’s complexity, so ask participants to block off the required time.

1. Prepare

Start by distributing the project plan to premortem participants so they can develop an understanding of the requirements and get answers to any questions. Then ensure you have all the necessary tools on hand. If you’re holding a virtual meeting, factor in video conferencing platforms, direct messaging applications, and a virtual whiteboard to document ideas and comments.

If the premortem is an in-person event, reserve a meeting room and have team members write down notes and ideas.

2. Identify

Ask each team member to brainstorm and write down failure scenarios without consulting anyone else.

If brainstorming is slow, posing prompts can shift everyone’s thinking into a higher gear. Some ideas include:

  • Have you noticed any weaknesses or assumptions in the project plan?
  • What factors could contribute to missing a deadline?
  • What factors would keep the project on schedule?
  • What resources are needed to complete the project?
  • What lessons learned from past projects apply to this one?

3. Share

Once everyone has completed their list, discuss and document their thoughts. If you’re using sticky notes, post them on a wall or whiteboard, removing duplicates. And if you’re in a virtual meeting or decide to share reasons verbally, give everyone the chance to speak.

Break down possible reasons for failure and feedback from other participants. Keeping the conversation positive and avoiding harsh critique encourages participants to share their insights openly. Ensure each scenario is specific and the commenter’s points are actionable and practical.

4. Prioritize

Once you’ve documented all the scenarios, rank their likelihood and impact. Not all risks are equally realistic or severe, so decide which ones to focus on based on these factors.

5. Plan

Upon identifying and prioritizing project risks, the team will develop a plan to prevent or reduce the impact of each threat. Assign responsibilities for mitigation tasks to team members and hold them accountable by establishing milestones and timelines.

6. Follow up

Ensure your team’s mitigation plans are thorough and then document the proposed strategies within your project management software. Revisit the plans often during the project lifecycle to monitor risks and update guidelines if the likelihood or severity of the threat changes.

7. Evaluate

Determine whether the premortem exercise was successful by inviting feedback. Consider these questions:

  • Did the meeting generate a list of relevant project risks?
  • Were mitigation plans suitable for addressing each threat?
  • Was the tone of the discussion positive?

Based on team member responses, adjust and improve the process moving forward.

A premortem example

Document the outcomes of your premortem meetings and add them to your project files so the team can access and review the results. Consider creating a template to standardize content across future projects.

For this example, the project team is developing and launching a new mobile game.

Failure scenario Likelihood Severity Response Who’s accountable? Deadline
Project goes over budget Medium Medium Research features to create the minimum viable product and direct funds there first. Once the MVP is complete, the team will direct additional money (if any) toward lower-priority features. Project manager Research:
Budget management:
Game doesn’t meet user expectations Low Medium Marketing will conduct additional research to create user personas to inform development. Promotion department Personas:
Apple or Android won’t include the game on their platforms Low High Review inclusion regulations for each platform and add them to the project plan. Project manager
development lead
Project plan update:
Server can’t handle additional user load during launch. Medium High Test to determine actual server capacity. Place a backup server on standby to be activated when the primary server load approaches 90% of total capacity. IT department Testing:
Backup configuration:

Successful project management with Roadmunk by Tempo

Level up your team’s premortem analysis by including audience-friendly roadmaps from Tempo’s Roadmunk to outline the mitigation process. Establishing your team’s crisis response with a visualization technique like roadmapping aligns teams, facilitates collaboration, and improves strategic organization.

Roadmunk also integrates with Jira, allowing managers to synchronize issues in their project management software with the roadmap to keep teams aware of a threat’s status and impact. Whether you work in an IT department, product development, or project management, Roadmunk can help you plan for the worst and expect the best.