Use Premortems to Improve Outcomes

Would you like to improve your chance for positive project outcomes by 30 percent? According to the 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 a team identify risks by other methods at the onset.


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 consider the patient as your project, performing a postmortem helps future projects.

In a business setting, premortems come at the beginning rather than the end to improve the current project outcome. 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. The 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 project's 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 every plausible reason the project failed.
  4. Share the possible causes: The leader asks each team member to share a unique reason for the project's failure with the team. This step repeats until all the explanations 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 postmortems provide better outcomes:

Find more interesting articles by Michael Portwood at