Run a pre-mortem

Virtual First | Effectiveness Kit

How often does your team play pretend in the course of a project? The question may seem silly, but evidence suggests that using “prospective hindsight”—imagining you’ve already failed or succeeded, then inventing reasons why—can help you make better decisions. Use this workshop to overcome blind spots, voice fears and potential problems, and avert failures before they happen.

60 MINS | VIRTUAL TEAM WORKSHOP

Step 1: Warm up the “room”

As you begin your virtual workshop, tell your team that they’ll each be writing a “story” about the project you’re embarking on together—then sharing it with the group. Writing and reading aloud can make some people feel nervous, so it’s a good idea to lay down some ground rules: 

  • The stories don’t have to be well-written! Whatever pops to mind is fine—there are no grammar police in the room.
  • The stories can take whatever form you like: a press release, newspaper article, company memo, and more.
  • It’s good to be honest and include details you normally wouldn’t mention for fear of being rude.

Step 2: Write two stories

After you’ve begun your virtual workshop, split your team into two groups: the Total Disaster crew and the Roaring Success crew. Then: 

  • Have everyone open a private doc
  • Ask them to imagine it’s a month after your big project has launched
  • Have each person in the Total Disaster crew spend 15 minutes writing a candid, detailed story about why the failure happened
  • Have the Roaring Success crew do the same thing but for a winning scenario

Step 3: Share your stories

When everyone’s finished writing, have them read their stories aloud, one by one. (This part can be funny—don’t be afraid to laugh.) 

Step 4: Reflect on core causes

When everyone’s done reading their stories, ask them to add the top 3 reasons for their project’s success or failure to the pre-mortem worksheet below. Read the answers together and discuss: 

  • What sticks out? 
  • Do you notice any patterns or themes? 
  • Which of the reasons for failure are most possible—and preventable? 
  • Which reasons for success do you feel super-confident about?
Pre-mortem worksheet

Horror story or happy ending?

Use this worksheet to reflect the core causes behind your project’s outcome. 

Step 5: Stop, Start, Continue

Ask your team to reflect on the stories and core causes they just discussed. Based on this, ask each person to add to a shared doc or chat: To prevent disaster and improve our chances of success, what is one thing we should: 

  • STOP doing?
  • START doing?
  • CONTINUE doing?

When you’re done, have everyone vote on ONE answer for each category. Then decide on and assign next steps. If your project seems doomed to failure, consider revisiting your project brief or team charter. If it seems destined for success, pat yourselves on the back. 

More resources

3 easy wins

Build the habit

  • Tomorrow: Think of a project you’re working on. What’s one reason it might succeed?
  • Next week: Ask your team, “What’s one reason this project might fail?”
  • Quarterly: Schedule a virtual pre-mortem for the next quarter’s roadmap.