Prevent Future Failures with a Premortem

The emperor was dead on the Senate floor. Julius Caesar had been attacked by almost 60 men and stabbed 23 times. The autopsy report (the first postmortem in recorded history) stated that Caesar died of blood loss, mostly due to a stab wound through the heart.

Nowadays, pathologists routinely conduct postmortem exams any time the cause of death is in question. The autopsy answers the question “Why did this person die?” The idea of a postmortem examination has also been used by armies going back thousands of years. After a battle, the General would gather his officers in his field tent and determine how the battle went compared with the battle plans. The focus was on learning what went right, what went wrong, and how they could improve during the next battle. The executive boardroom is another common place for a postmortem. After a project, or department fails, the executives gather to dissect the failure to understand why it happened.

The lessons that come from postmortems can be extremely valuable, and I encourage all leaders to use them. But wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to wait until something dies to gain the insight?¬†Good news, you don’t.

Introducing the premortem.

The premortem is a thought experiment that I use as part of any strategic planning process or change management process. This works best in a group setting with all the stakeholders/participants. Here’s how it works.

Step 1. Set a clear goal/goals (this article isn’t about goal setting, but without SMART goals, your strategy and your results will suffer. So follow the SMART goal setting methodology).

Step 2. Answer this question. “If we were to fail in this goal and we all met back in this room in one year to discuss what went wrong, what would we say caused our failure?” or put another way “What are the reasons we could fail to accomplish our goal?” The idea here is to write down as many answers as possible. So, when I facilitate this, I write down the reasons they yell out, then I say “Great, what else?” I keep “what elsing” the group until they don’t have any more answers. You may end up with 20 or more potential reasons for failure. Good, the more the better. One more thing about step 2 is that every idea is written down, no matter how stupid, or unlikely. We will vet each of the reasons in the next step. Also, I write down each reason in a column, one on top of the other, with room to write to the right of each reason. I have learned that most things fail, due to mundane, completely predictable reasons. The most common reaction I hear from a leader after a failure is that they should have seen this coming.

Step 3. Assign each reason a likelihood number. This is a number between 1-10. A likelihood of “1” would mean that the reason is extremely unlikely to actually happen. Yes, a meteor strike right on top of our new office location could cause us to fail, but I feel pretty good about our odds. That would be a 1. A likelihood of 10 would me that it is absolutely certain.

Step 4. Assign each reason an impact number. This is a number between 1-10. An impact of 1 means that even if that reason came true, it would have almost no negative effect. An impact of 10 is an extinction level event. If it occurs, it’s game over for your goal.

Step 5. For each reason, multiply the likelihood number and the impact number to get the failure value. Each reason will have a failure value of between 1-100. The bigger the number, the more you need to take that reason into account when building your strategy.

Step 6. Assign specific individuals to own the development of a plan to deal with each of the high failure value reasons.

Step 7. Repeat this premortem process at a regular interval (maybe every quarter, or every six months), as well as any time there is a significant change that could affect your business.

That’s it. Pretty simple huh? The premortem is solid gold and nobody does it. This is the sort of strategy exercise that can create competitive advantages for you and your company. So whether you are the CEO, or an entry level employee, start asking the question “What could kill this?”

A Message From The Author:

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Jeremiah Miller is a leadership coach and the founder of Forging Leaders, a leadership development firm based in Rocklin, CA. Jeremiah believes that everything is a leadership issue. If you don’t like the way things are going in your life, you have the power to change them. In fact, you are the only person with the power to change them. Forging Leaders provides one on one coaching, and group workshops to business owners, executives, and managers.

Jeremiah’s¬†contact info:


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