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Project Management

Project Risk Management – Performing a Project Premortem

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A powerful, forward-thinking exercise used in project risk management, the project premortem exercise preemptively addresses risks, and helps prevent costly disasters. It ensures that your project stays on track and minimizes the chances of failure.

During a premortem the project team collectively imagines that the project has already failed. Instead of waiting for actual failure, they proactively explore potential causes for this failure. By envisioning failure scenarios, the team gains insights into risks and pitfalls before they occur.

Project premortems can be conducted on a per project basis or performed on an entire program.

Premortem vs. Project Risk Assessment

A premortem occurs before the project starts, focusing on anticipating and mitigating potential problems. A risk assessment typically happens after the project begins, identifying risks that could impact the project outcome.

Premortems vs. Postmortems

A premortem and a postmortem (after-project analysis) are similar. Together, they provide insights into project dynamics and help understand how decisions impact outcomes. While a postmortem reflects on what went wrong after the fact, a premortem anticipates issues before they materialize.

Benefits of a Premortem

  1. Proactive Project Risk Management: A project premortem allows teams to address risks before they materialize. By imagining the worst-case scenario, you can proactively identify potential problems and risks. This early awareness enables you to take preventive measures or develop contingency plans.
  2. Improved Decision-Making: A premortem grounds the team by highlighting vulnerabilities and risks. It prevents overconfidence and encourages a more realistic assessment of the project’s chances of success. By considering failure scenarios, teams make better decisions during project planning.
  3. Enhanced Communication: During the premortem, team members collectively explore failure scenarios, encouraging open dialogue and collaboration among team members.
  4. Increased Accountability: A premortem brings diverse team members together to discuss risks and solutions. Team members take ownership of potential risks.

How Does it Work?

A premortem exercise, like many brainstorming exercises, is best performed in-person. Considering the many online collaboration tools now available, video conferencing (with shared screen) can be just as effective. Regardless of the method, the best results will be achieved through honest, open, and positive discussion.

  1. Toolbox:

    Typical brainstorming items such as sticky notes, white board, markers, timer and a collaborative space. For an online session use video conferencing and an online collaboration tool.

  2. Timebox:

    Maximum of two hours total (30 minutes for each brainstorming session, 30 minutes for rankings and prioritization, smaller time increments for open discussion or exploration).

  3. Participants:

    A premortem typically involves the project manager, team members, and stakeholders. The more diverse perspectives you have during the premortem, the more likely you are to identify a potential future risk and prevent that risk from happening.

  4. Imagine Failure:

    The team mentally transports themselves to the future, where the project has already failed.

    • Imagine the worst: Start by exposing that the project at hand has been a complete disaster.
    • What does a project failure look like? For whom?
    • Individually brainstorm potential business failures and causes – missed deadlines, communication breakdowns, technical glitches, lack of adoption, etc.
  5. Working Backwards:

    The team then works backward from the point of failure to understand how it happened.

  6. Rank risk criticality and probability:

    For each failure scenario each team member provides opinions on how critical a failure would be and how likely it is to occur.

    • Discuss rank differences among team members.
    • Group consensus on criticality and probability.
    • Chose top 3-5 critical/probable failures.
  7. Risk Mitigation Strategies:

    Armed with this knowledge, the team can develop strategies to mitigate these risks.

    • How to prevent failure from happening?
    • Listing of potential solutions to eliminate critical failures/causes.
    • Be sure to capture action items and assign them to team members.
  8. Socialize and Monitor:

    Review the list and solutions with all stakeholders and look for ways to strengthen the plan.


Remember, while it may seem counterintuitive to discuss failure, a project premortem is a valuable tool for ensuring project success! It helps teams proactively address risks, enhance project planning, and foster a mindset of continuous improvement.

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Chris Romano

Chris is a Perficient Project Manager and a SAFe 5 Scrum Master based in Denver, CO. Chris has many years of experience managing large-scale telco supply chains and strategic sourcing programs. These program management skills transitioned well into IT-related project management and digital platform assessment roles. In challenging environments, Chris excels in versatility, team building, and highly functional organization.

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