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Save your project from failing by using a pre-mortem

Did you know that 70% of projects fail, as they don’t produce the planned deliverables on time or within budget. Yet a simple question at the start of a project can dramatically improve its success. Today we’re going to explore… the pre-mortem. 

We’ve all heard about a post-mortem, where a physician examines a corpse to discover the likely cause of death. But what on earth is a pre-mortem? 

Well let’s imagine we’re about to start a new project or run a big event, which is really a mini-project anyway. They say that 20:20 hindsight is a wonderful thing – if only we knew at the beginning of a project what we’d know by the end of it. Because that way we’d know what to avoid along the way.

While time travel still isn’t possible, we can mentally transport ourselves to the end of the project and imagine what it’s like. While we often imagine the positive outcomes from our projects, it’s even more powerful, though somewhat disconcerting, to imagine the worst case scenario. Imagine that despite all our good efforts, the project was an absolute failure. Once you know why it may have failed, you can then plan to overcome, or at least mitigate, those risks.

Let’s start with the GFRAS event that we facilitated back in 2017. For those who aren’t aware, GFRAS is the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services, and it represents over 20 regional extension networks around the world. APEN, the Australasia-Pacific Extension Network, is our local extension network and we were privileged to host the GFRAS annual meeting in northern Queensland.

It was a high profile event and they expected about 120 delegates from 30 countries to attend. It was the first time for Australia to host the event and neither of us had even attended a GFRAS annual meeting, let alone facilitated the entire event. So it ticked all the boxes for being a high risk activity with plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. 

It was all those unknowns that helped us feel really nervous about the event. Yet this was the eighth annual meeting, so others had done this before. So early on, we decided to conduct a pre-mortem, asking previous organisers to share their insights and experiences. We obviously couldn’t do this face-to-face, so we used a simple online survey to gather their responses. We were delighted with the amount of detail we received to our questions about what had worked well and not so well in the past. That really gave us a solid foundation for our planning. 

The key question though, was around what might go wrong at our event and how best to avoid it. The responses to this question ranged from practical concerns about airport transfers through to more ethical concerns about the advertising that used pictures of the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately this might have raised the expectations of some delegates that they could easily go snorkelling during their meal breaks, when in fact we were some distance from the Reef!

It was a great list of potential problems, but they then they also suggested ways of avoiding them or at least minimising the risk. One of the good suggestions was to use a graphic facilitator, especially for those for whom English wasn’t their first language. We did that, and Filippo did a great job of capturing the essence of many of the presentations in pictorial format. The final artwork helped remind us of the many conversations that occurred over the three days. 

So that’s an example of using a pre-mortem to better plan an event. 

Another example from John… recently he kicked off a new three-year project that involved multiple stakeholders and funding partners. They held the inaugural meeting of the project steering committee, with representatives from each of the contributing organisations. After discussing the project’s desired outputs and outcomes, the meeting paused and John invited each of the participants to imagine that the project had finished, but unfortunately the whole thing was an absolute disaster. 

John asked them to each briefly jot down a list of items they thought may have contributed to the disaster. He then went around the group, with each person adding a new idea that hadn’t already been mentioned. They were a creative bunch and came up with many and varied problems, including factors such as poor communication, loss of project vision and staff turnover! He then got the group to spend time working through each potential issue, suggesting ways to prevent it from happening. 

It only took about 20 minutes but it really helped improve the approach to the project, and John is sure that the project collaborators now have a greater understanding of the importance of their roles and also a greater sense of ownership of the project. As a result, it’s far more likely that the project will be a success, as the people involved are no longer blind to the potential problems.

So what was the actual question asked do run this exercise?

It was a three year project so John invited them to imagine it was now five years time and that the project had well and truly finished. Unfortunately for all involved, it was a complete and utter disaster. People still talk about how badly it went. He asked them to imagine they were now all sitting around a table and discussing it. The simple question he asked was “What went wrong?”. They each silently wrote a list of possible problems and then went around the group with each person sharing an item that hadn’t been mentioned before. 

Notice that the question is “What went wrong”, not ”What might go wrong”?

Why this question? Well it comes back to how our brains function. Back in 1989 a research study looked at what they called “prospective hindsight”. Instead of imagining forwards what might hypothetically go wrong, they suggest we imagine that the event has already occurred and you are thinking back about it. It’s a matter of perspective really. Anyway, their results indicated a 30% increase in respondents’ ability to correctly identify reasons for the future outcomes using this technique. You’ll find a link to this research below.

So you’ve heard our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below this blog post and tell us your thoughts about pre-mortems – have you used this technique? Any tips or ideas? We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change blog. Remember to subscribe if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. If you liked what you heard, then give it a rating and leave us a comment. And better still, tell someone else about our new adventure and invite them to join us!

All the best until we meet again.

Resource links

70% of projects fail: 

Harvard Business Review article: 

Prospective hindsight article:

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Matt McCarthy
4 years ago

Great little topic. In my experience the excitement and often time pressures usually at play in the design of a project can cause quite a bit of hazy thinking and air brushing of potential problems. The pre mortem sounds a little negative at first but i think it cleverly would draw on my tendency to give graphic details about disasters!!!!

4 years ago

I really liked the pre-mortem technique. I tried it for an event that I’m organising at the moment. The technique provides new insights and contributes to stress 🙂

Kamru (Md Kamruzzaman)
Kamru (Md Kamruzzaman)
1 year ago

I really like the idea of “What went wrong” by pretending I am seating in future and look back instead of predicting what might go wrong. Currently, I am interested in and working with a group to navigate Future thinking/ future management. I think this idea of “what went wrong” might help our group better plan for future and act accordingly. Good idea, John. Thanks.

Maclean Materechera
Maclean Materechera
1 year ago

This is really great, I have used Project Logical Framework whereby we make assumptions predicting potential problems for the proposed project. On this, this tool is all about “what may go wrong”. It looks much on what can it take to achieve the objectives of the project. I have learnt that prospective hindsight can help to perfect this tool especially when planning the whole project. I have seen many extension projects failing in Malawi but with this prospective hindsight, I think we can do much better.

Mal Cock
Mal Cock
2 months ago

Good thoughts, thank you again.
It can also be well applied to risk management.
70% is a good figure… that is about the same figure I think that farming businesses don’t have active written business (& incorporating risk management) plans. About 99% of people, don’t have a life plan!

I am doing and further developing workshops on ‘Positive Aging on Farms for all Generations’.
A question I always ask is: What is limiting you achieving your aims?
I will now think of turning this around to: Looking back at your life…. what has limited you achieving your life’s aims?

Craig Elliott
Craig Elliott
2 months ago

This is a great technique John that we often use to train emergency response planners who have to deal with the infamous “VUCA” situation. As they develop their understanding of the situation that they are dealing with and what they are trying to achieve, the pre-mortem provides a great way to test their proposed strategies and plans and start considering what refinements are needed or what contingency planning also needs to take place.

2 months ago

I’ve facilitated the positive version where a statement of what something looks like in the future is made and the group asked to discuss how we got there, i.e., what went right…

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