How to Avoid Project Failure With Premortem


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Only 39% of all IT projects succeed in 2012. If you think that number is shocking, check out this alarming statistic: 68% of IT professionals believed their project would fail right from the beginning. How many of those people from the 68% do you think spoke up before the start of the project and expressed their concerns? In a team of 20, you’re probably looking at one or two, if any.

There are a number of reasons why team members remain silent at the beginning of a project and evade communicating their apprehension.

  • They may want to avoid appearing negative,
  • they may feel like their concerns are not valid and might appear inexperienced,
  • they may feel like they’re creating a problem before it’s even happened,
  • or they may just lack the confidence to speak up during team meetings.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that there needs to be a structured and open dialogue where each team member can express concerns and share their experience and knowledge.

While most teams look at and analyze the potential risks and possible causes for project failure during the planning stage, this only focuses on what might happen. In order to fully assess all possible risks and potential reasons for failure, teams must not only identify what might go wrong with the project, but they also need to analyze what did go wrong.

How can you analyze a failed project before it has even started? Well, by using prospective hindsight through a method called premortem.

What is Premortem?

Those within the IT and software-development industry are already very familiar with the term postmortem, whereby a team analyzes and identifies all the successes and failures of a project, usually just after its completion.

A premortem aims to help identify all the possible risks and reasons for failure before they occur by pretending that the current project has already failed. The premortem is usually conducted after the project’s plan has been released or even during the development process.

A typical premortem meeting usually starts off with the project manager advising team members that the project failed dreadfully. The team members then write down possible reasons for the project’s failure, and each person then takes turns in reading aloud their reasons.

The project manager (either alone or with the rest of the team) then carefully analyzes all reasons given by the team members, gives each potential reason a probability score, and looks for ways that they can improve the project’s plan and avoid potential risks.

As premortems analyze what actually did go wrong compared to what might go wrong, teams can increase their chances of uncovering potential reasons for failure by as much as 30%*.

Benefits of Premortem

In the same way analyzing a failed project through a postmortem provides a number of lessons learned and ways to improve future projects, premortems also provide the same advantages, the only difference being that teams can avoid mistakes they “made” in the “failed” project and increase the chances of success for the current project they are about to undertake (or are undertaking).

Some other benefits include:

  • Team members can confidently express their concerns and back them up with valid reasons.
  • Each team member can freely share their knowledge and experiences with failed and successful projects.
  • The morale of the team strengthens because of open dialogue.
  • As all team members are required to participate, shy team members are encouraged to share their thoughts and experiences.
  • It reduces the number of bad decisions made by the group, often referred to as groupthink.

In order to truly account for all possible risks and identify potential reasons for failure in new projects, premortems need to be an integral part of the planning process. And as the saying goes, (prospective) hindsight is always 20-20.

In order to accurately identify all potential risks and possible reasons for failure, our project teams undertake a number of risk assessments before and during the project. This ensures a smooth course of development and minimizes project failure. Learn more about our development process by clicking here.

* Back to the Future: Temporal Perspective in the Explanation of Events by Deborah J.Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington, 1989.

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