Harry Smith

Conducting a Daily Premortem

Use Gary Klein's Premortem as a daily practice to avoid your usual failure modes

In the September 2007 Gary Klien proposed a new process, the ‘premortem’. The premortem identifies how a project might fail before it even begins. The process is simple. Immediately after describing the new project, predict how it will fail. Each team member makes a list of these reasons, sharing them one by one to strengthen the plan. The results are impressive. It’s worth reading the full text.

The power of the premortem is prospective hindsight. We are 30% more accurate at prediction when imagining the event has already occurred. We are better at understanding how we might fail, and bad at understanding how we did fail.

The premortem can be a powerful daily practice.

The day usually starts with identifying what the key goals for the day are. You need to write a proposal. You need to go shopping. The bathroom needs cleaning. The technique applies well to all goals, not only work related goals. Now spend a few moments thinking why they might not happen. What can you do to avoid them?

I know I’m unlikely to clean the bathroom in the afternoon. Now I’ve identified that, I know I can maximise my chances of success by doing it early.

I identify that weak research would cause the proposal to be of poor quality. Now my task for the day isn’t writing the proposal, but protecting against this failure. I adjust, and plan to research instead.

I need to go shopping but my day is full of meetings. I’ll have to get it done between two of them. The big tesco’s is off the cards, what can I get from the local store?

Sometimes it becomes clear that a particular goal or task is not going to be possible today. This allows you to readjust. Usually there is a more suitable day. Or there are things blocking it that you can handle first. You’ve avoided a painful waste of time.

We are all familiar with having failed our more aspirational goals without awareness. Remembering that today was meat-free day while biting into a bacon sandwich. Most of our failure modes are common and know to us. We repeat these failures by repeating the conditions for their success. The premortem identifies the common patterns of failure.

We are all bad at thinking of failure. It is uncomfortable. It is an inescapable fact of human psychology. We underestimate our shortcomings, and overestimate our ability. The more we can understand this, the better we perform. The more you conduct a premortem, the better your ability to predict failure becomes.

Conducting a daily pre-mortem takes only a few minutes. It can save you hours of wasted effort. It’s easy to test the process right now. What is the next thing you need to do? How might it fail? How might you avoid it?

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