How to Run a ‘Pre-Mortem’ Brainstorm to Spot (and Avoid) Project Fails


Get Shift Done: Management

Image by Jeremy Yap

Imagine this situation: you’re leading a project kick-off meeting. From the looks on people’s faces, you know that they have questions, concerns, and reservations about the project, but so far they’re not voicing them. Their reasons don’t matter, but you need to cut through the ice. It’s time for a pre-mortem.

A pre-mortem is a way to create a ‘safe space’ to express sentiments that could be construed as negative. It’s a simple enough concept: you imagine it’s 18 months in the future and the project has been a failure. The job of the pre-mortem is to identify in advance why that might happen.


You’ll need some resources:

  • A room that fits your goals — this should be a creative space where people feel comfortable expressing themselves. You may need to hire one out if you don’t have the appropriate space on-site. Allocate budget: this is important!
  • More post-its of varying colors than you think could ever be consumed by a group of people in two hours. If you can get the super-sticky variety, so much the better.
  • Sharpies or other thick pens (you need to be able to read what’s on the post-its from a distance).
  • Small circular stickers for the ‘voting’ activity (more on voting in a bit).
  • A large wall with space in front of it where people can stand, talk, and re-organize post-it notes.
  • Snacks, drinks and nibbles. This is hard work, so give people some grapes, M&Ms, water, coffee… whatever will grease the wheels.


Once you have your resources all lined-up, you should:

  1. Invite everyone to a face-to-face meeting. Anyone who you think has, (or could have) data or an opinion about this project should be in the room. Find a time when everyone can meet, and don’t kick off the project until you’ve met.
  2. Set aside a good chunk of time. This should be uninterrupted, and everyone should turn off their devices, or put them in airplane mode, unless needed for the meeting.You need to focus and everyone should be involved.
  3. Appoint a note-taker. One person should be responsible for ensuring that the meeting is well-documented. Ideally, create an online document using something like Dropbox Paper or Google Docs and put it up on a projector screen so everyone can see. Transparency is important.

How to Run a Pre-Mortem

OK, so you’re now in the meeting, here’s what to do. Note the lack of ice-breaker activities and introductions at the start. You haven’t got time for these! You’re going to spend an hour problem-finding, and an hour problem-solving.


  1. Welcome — explain that the purpose of the meeting is to ensure all reasons for potential project failure are addressed. Emphasize that documented responses will be anonymized, and that Chatham House rule applies. In other words, this is a safe space to discuss things that would otherwise seem ‘too negative’ or lead to recriminations.
  2. Explain the project — outline the project as concisely as possible. Ask for questions that clarify the scope, or help define unfamiliar words, etc. Ideally have this up on the screen so that people can read it as well as listen to what you have to say.
  3. Write down potential problems — ask participants to write as many reasons why the project might fail onto the provided post-it notes. Ensure the post-its colors are mixed up so individual people’s contributions can’t be recognized however, reserve one color for your own use.
  4. Stick the post-its to the wall — collect the post-its and stick them anywhere on the wall. As the facilitator, you can do this as each participant finishes writing on a post-it note.
  5. Review the problems — ask all participants to stand in front of the wall, and get them to look at the post-its. You can read them all aloud, if you think there is time.
  6. Group the problems — it’s likely that participants have identified similar problems using different words or terminology. Encourage participants to group these together. Once they’ve done this, ask them to grab a specially-colored post-it (the one that you’ve reserved for this purpose) and give that group a name.
  7. Vote — everyone gets three votes for the problems they think are likely to be the ‘showstoppers’. It’s fine for someone to put all three on one post-it note if they like, or to spread them across three different problems.
  8. Record the names of the top 10 ‘showstopper’ problems — everyone can sit back down, then someone should read out the names of the problems that received the most votes. These are recorded on-screen for everyone to see.
  9. Discuss — perhaps a problem hasn’t been as well-defined as it could have been, or maybe someone takes issue with something being a problem. Spend a minute per problem ensuring it’s expressed in the clearest way possible.

Note: you should ask your note-taker to stay behind after the meeting with you to collect additional things that should be documented, including every problem identified in the meeting.

Problem Solving

  1. Divide into small groups — at least pairs, but if you’ve got lots of people, then perhaps threes or fours.
  2. Allocate problems — you can do this by function, by interest, or randomly. Each group should have at least one problem to work on.
  3. Find a space — ask each group where they’re going to base themselves. Depending on the amount of space you have, this may be a breakout room or even a local café.
  4. Assign the tasks — each group has two tasks: a) coming up with a ‘proactive’ solution that will prevent the problem from happening, and b) coming up with a ‘mitigating’ solution in case the problem manifests itself (or already exists).
  5. Send groups off — ask them to return 30 minutes later with their responses written down. Note: if you share an online document, and each group has an appropriate device with them, they could capture their responses directly into the shared doc.
  6. Share responses — encourage each group to spend one minute outlining their proposed solution.
  7. Allocate responsibilities — start with asking for volunteers, but eventually everyone in the room should have their name or initials next to at least one ‘proactive’ or ‘mitigating’ solution.

Final Words

The pre-mortem approach to project planning allows you to hear the concerns and fears that people may have about the project. Whether based on data or opinions, they’re equally valid and should be recorded.

As Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

A project pre-mortem allows you to sharpen that axe so the project flows around potential blockages, and has barriers removed before they become an issue. Try it! I guarantee once you have, it will become a staple of your project planning process.

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