Use Premortems to Improve Outcomes

Would you like to improve your chance for positive project outcome by 30 percent? According to research conducted in 1989 by Deborah Mitchell and her colleagues, incorporating "prospective hindsight" can deliver this level of improvement.

Rather than using the standard risk identification and mitigation approach, Mitchell suggests imagining that the project has already occurred and failed. Her prospective hindsight approach, or premortem, helps team identify risks at the outset missed by other methods.


A premortem is the opposite of a postmortem. Using postmortems, healthcare professionals learn the cause of a patient’s death, which helps everyone except the patient, by potentially understanding the cause of the outcome. If you think about the patient as your project, performing a postmortem only helps future projects.

In a business setting, premortems come at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the current project outcome can be improved. Unlike the standard approach of assessing what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the project has failed and asks what caused it to fail. Team members’ task is to provide plausible reasons for the project’s failure.


Here are the steps to complete a premortem:

  1. Scope the project: The leader briefs the team about the particulars of the project – its scope, plan, milestones, etc.
  2. Fail the project: The leader starts the exercise by informing the team that the project has failed spectacularly.
  3. Diagnose the potential causes: Each team member, independently, spends a few minutes writing down every plausible reason the project failed.
  4. Share the potential causes: The leader asks each team member to share a unique reason for the project failure with the team. This step repeats until all of reasons have been shared.
  5. Strengthen plan: The project manager reviews the list for ways to strengthen the plan and then incorporates those improvements.

Why Postmortems Improve Outcomes

There are several reasons why postmortems provide better outcomes:

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