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Meeting Tips

How to Run a Project Premortem in 6 Steps

April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
Anika Jahin
How to Run a Project Premortem in 6 Steps
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Have you ever poured your heart into a project, only to watch it fall apart? Project failure stings, but there's a way to fight back. Enter the premortem (from Latin "pre" meaning before and "mortem" meaning death).

It's not about negativity, it's about imagining the worst-case scenario upfront. By proactively brainstorming potential roadblocks, you can develop plans to avoid them and ensure your project thrives.

This blog will help you to run effective premortems. We'll break down the steps, explore best practices, and banish those project postmortem blues forever!

Traditional vs. Agile Project Premortem

While the core concept remains the same, how you integrate a premortem differs between traditional and Agile project methodologies.

Traditional Project Premortem

  • One-Time Event: In traditional project management, a premortem typically happens as a single, dedicated session before the entire project kicks off.
  • Focus on Big-Picture Risks: The brainstorming here zeroes in on broader project risks that could derail success, like scope creep, resource constraints, or unforeseen technical challenges.

Agile Project Premortem

  • Iterative and Adaptable: Agile methodologies, with their emphasis on short sprints, call for a more iterative approach to premortems.
  • Focus on Sprint-Specific Risks: Premortem discussions are woven into the Agile workflow, often happening before each sprint. This ensures a focus on short-term goals and continuous improvement. The team brainstorms potential roadblocks specific to the upcoming sprint's tasks and deliverables.

Choosing Your Approach

The best premortem approach depends on your project's structure and scale. Traditional premortems are ideal for linear projects with well-defined phases. Agile premortems shine in dynamic environments where priorities and goals evolve iteratively.

6 Steps to a Powerful Project Premortem

A premortem is a proactive meeting designed to identify potential pitfalls in your project before they derail your success. By working backward from a hypothetical failure scenario, you can uncover hidden risks and develop strategies to mitigate them.

Here's a comprehensive guide to running a powerful premortem:

(1) Prepare the Groundwork

  • Project Plan: Before diving into potential failure, establish a solid foundation. Circulate a clear project plan outlining goals, timelines, budget, stakeholders, and deliverables. This shared understanding helps the team brainstorm relevant risks.
  • Invite Stakeholders: Include key players from your project team and anyone with valuable insights into potential roadblocks. This may involve cross-functional partners but not necessarily project sponsors or executives.

(2) Imagine the Worst

  • Set the Scene: Frame the meeting by explaining the goal: identify reasons why the project might fail. Emphasize this as a positive, proactive exercise to prevent problems, not a blame game.
  • Silent Brainstorming (Optional): To encourage open participation and avoid groupthink, consider silent brainstorming. Give individuals time to write down their ideas on potential project failures anonymously.

(3) Unearth the Risks

  • Individual or Group Brainstorming: Whether silently or collaboratively, have everyone brainstorm potential reasons for project failure. Encourage detailed and specific ideas, assuming everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.
  • Capture Everything: Consolidate all ideas on a shared platform, like a whiteboard or collaborative document. Group similar ideas together for clarity.

(4) Prioritize the Threats

  • Likelihood & Impact: Analyze each risk based on its probability of occurring and its potential impact on the project. Use a risk matrix to categorize them (high/low likelihood vs. high/low impact).
  • Focus on High Risks: Prioritize risks that fall into the "high likelihood" or "high impact" categories. These potential problems are likely to derail your project or have the most significant consequences.

(5) Develop Action Plans

  • Brainstorm Solutions: For each prioritized risk, brainstorm solutions and mitigation strategies. The goal is to create a plan to prevent the risk from occurring or minimize its impact.
  • Actionable Steps: Clearly define actions to take, assign ownership, and set deadlines for each mitigation strategy. Ensure everyone understands their role in preventing project failure. Assign a notetaker to capture key takeaways and action items. Consider utilizing Wudpecker, an AI meeting assistant that tailors all meeting notes for you, which ensures everyone has a clear reference point after the meeting.

(6) Refine Your Project Plan

  • Revisit and Revise: Utilizing your premortem insights, revisit your project plan and incorporate strategies to address the identified risks. Strengthen any weak points that could lead to failure scenarios.
  • Communication Is Key: Share the revised plan with your team and stakeholders. This transparency fosters accountability and ensures everyone is aligned on how to achieve success.

Example of Project Premortem: Launching a New Mobile App

Imagine you're leading a premortem for launching a new mobile app.

Here's how you might structure your brainstorming session:

Potential Failure Points:

  • Technical glitches cause app crashes during launch week.
  • The marketing campaign fails to generate enough user downloads.
  • The app faces negative reviews due to bugs or lack of features.
  • A competitor launches a similar app first and steals market share.

Prioritized Risks:

  • High Likelihood & High Impact: App crashes during launch week. This could severely damage user trust and the app's reputation.
  • High Likelihood & Medium Impact: Marketing campaign underperforms. This could lead to a lower-than-expected user base.

Action Plans:

  • App Crashes: Conduct thorough stress testing before launch. Develop a backup plan for immediate bug fixes if necessary.
  • Marketing Underperformance: Analyze marketing channels to identify potential gaps. Allocate additional resources or adjust strategies to reach a wider audience.

Common Pitfalls of Project Premortem

While premortems offer significant value, there are also pitfalls to be aware of:

  1. Blame Game Atmosphere: Avoid turning the premortem into a forum for criticizing past decisions or assigning fault. This discourages open discussion and honest participation. Focus on identifying solutions, not dwelling on blame.
  2. Negativity Bias: While identifying potential failures is important, don't get bogged down in worst-case scenarios. Maintain a balance between acknowledging risks and focusing on solutions.
  3. Dominant Voices: Encourage diverse perspectives and independent thinking. Utilize techniques like silent brainstorming to avoid dominant voices swaying the discussion.
  4. Superficial Brainstorming: Don't settle for generic risks like "project delays" or "communication issues." Encourage detailed and specific scenarios that address the project's unique vulnerabilities.
  5. No Actionable Outcomes: Don't let the premortem become a mere brainstorming session. Develop concrete steps to address identified risks, assign ownership, and set deadlines for mitigation strategies.
  6. Limited Follow-Through: Don't shelve the premortem insights after the meeting. Regularly revisit the action plan, monitor potential risks, and adapt your approach as needed.
  7. Identifying False Threats: There is a risk of identifying weaknesses that aren't real, leading to preventative measures that hinder project execution. Ensure a focus on realistic potential problems.

Project Premortem Agenda Template

This template will guide your team through a productive premortem session, helping you proactively identify potential project risks and develop mitigation strategies.

Feel free to modify the template according to your project needs.

Pre-mortem Questions for Facilitators

As a facilitator, you play a critical role in guiding a productive and insightful premortem session leading to project's success.

Here are some key questions to consider throughout the process, incorporating the valuable prompts you provided:

Core Premortem Questions

  • What could go wrong with our project or plan?
  • Are there any big risks we haven't discussed yet but are important?
  • What are the key assumptions we have made, and what happens if they are proven wrong?

Digging Deeper

  • What's the easiest thing we could do to mitigate this risk? 
  • What could we do to cause our own failure?
  • What are the potential blind spots in our plan or approach? 
  • What are the potential unintended consequences of our actions?

Considering the Unexpected

  • What external factors could negatively impact the project? 
  • What internal weaknesses could lead to project failure? 
  • What mistakes could we make?

Customizing Additional Questions:

  • Tailor prompts to the specific project. For example, for a marketing campaign premortem, you might ask: "What marketing channels could underperform?"
  • Use open-ended questions to stimulate creative thinking (e.g., "What if...?" or "How could...?" ). 
  • Avoid leading questions that suggest a specific answer.


Premortems offers a powerful project management tool that can significantly increase your chances of success. By taking the time to step back and imagine potential failure scenarios, you can proactively identify weaknesses, develop mitigation strategies, and boost team confidence.

This forward-thinking approach cultivates a collaborative environment where open communication and critical thinking are valued.

Remember, a successful premortem is not about dwelling on negativity; it's about harnessing collective intelligence to build a stronger, more resilient project foundation.


What Is an Example of a Premortem?

Here's an example of a premortem for a fictional marketing campaign launch for a new fitness tracker:

Project Overview:

  • Launch a marketing campaign for the fitness tracker targeting young professionals.
  • Goal: Increase brand awareness and pre-orders by 20% within the first month.

Brainstorming Potential Failures: External Factors

  • A competitor launches a similar product with more features at a lower price point.
  • A negative review from a prominent tech influencer sways public opinion.
  • Unexpected economic downturn reduces consumer spending on discretionary items like fitness trackers.

Brainstorming Potential Failures: Internal Weaknesses

  • The marketing campaign fails to resonate with the target audience.
  • Technical issues with the product during the launch window damage brand reputation.
  • Delays in production or shipping hinder our ability to meet pre-order demand.

Mistakes We Could Make:

  • We underestimate the marketing budget needed to reach our target audience effectively.
  • We overpromise on the product's capabilities in marketing materials.
  • We fail to adequately test the product before launch, leading to bugs or glitches.

Action Plans:

  • Competitor Launch: Continuously monitor competitor activity and adjust marketing strategies as needed. Develop contingency plans to address potential price wars or feature comparisons.
  • Negative Reviews: Proactively identify potential areas for criticism and address them before launch through product refinement or revised marketing messaging. Have a designated team member ready to respond promptly and professionally to any negative reviews that arise.
  • Economic Downturn: Develop alternative marketing strategies that are more cost-effective or target budget-conscious consumers. Consider offering early-bird discounts or pre-order bundles to incentivize purchases.
  • Marketing Resonance: Conduct thorough audience research to understand target demographics and tailor messaging accordingly. Utilize A/B testing of marketing materials to optimize campaign effectiveness.
  • Technical Issues: Implement rigorous product testing throughout the development process. As the project progress, establish clear quality control procedures to minimize the risk of launch-day malfunctions.
  • Production/Shipping Delays: Maintain open communication with manufacturing partners and establish buffer time in the launch schedule to account for potential delays. Develop contingency plans for alternative shipping options if necessary.
  • Marketing Budget: Conduct thorough market research to establish realistic budgeting needs. Explore cost-effective marketing channels like social media influencer partnerships or targeted online advertising.
  • Overpromising on Features: Clearly communicate product features and limitations in all marketing materials. Focus on highlighting the core benefits that resonate most with the target audience.
  • Inadequate Testing: Allocate sufficient time and resources for thorough product testing before launch. Encourage open communication within the development team to identify and address any potential issues early on.

What Does a Team Leader Ask the Team Members to Do in a Premortem?

In a premortem, a team leader's primary role is to guide the team toward proactively identifying potential failures before the project begins and developing mitigation strategies.

Here's what a team leader typically asks team members to do for project risk management:

Brainstorming Potential Failures

  • Imagine the Worst: The leader will ask the team to consider "What if...?" scenarios. The goal is to encourage them to think critically and identify potential problems for future outcomes from all angles, both internal and external factors.
  • Contribute Openly and Honestly: The leader will emphasize the importance of open communication and encourage all team members to share their concerns, regardless of seniority.
  • Provide Specific Examples: The leader might ask for specific examples to illustrate potential problems. This helps the team move beyond generic risks and delve deeper into realistic scenarios.

Prioritizing Risks and Developing Solutions

  • Evaluate Likelihood and Impact: The leader will guide the team in assessing the likelihood of each identified risk occurring and its potential impact on the project. This helps prioritize which problems deserve the most attention.
  • Brainstorm Solutions: The leader will facilitate brainstorming sessions to develop actionable mitigation strategies for each high-priority risk.
  • Take Ownership and Set Deadlines: The leader will encourage team members to take ownership of specific action items within the mitigation plan and set clear deadlines for completion.

Here are some specific questions a team leader might ask during a premortem:

  • What could go wrong with this project?
  • What are some potential roadblocks or challenges we might face?
  • Are there any assumptions we've made that could be flawed?
  • How could we accidentally cause our own failure?
  • What blind spots might we have in our current plan?
  • What actions can we take to mitigate these risks?
  • Who can take ownership of implementing these solutions?
  • What are realistic deadlines for completing these action items?

What Is Premortem in Agile?

In Agile project management, a premortem is a proactive strategy specifically designed for Sprints.

It's different from a traditional premortem in a few key ways:

  • Focus: Agile premortems target short-term project risks associated with the upcoming Sprint, not the entire project lifecycle.
  • Timing: These premortems are quick discussions held before each Sprint planning session. This ensures focused brainstorming on potential issues that could derail the upcoming Sprint goals.
  • Integration: Agile premortems become an ongoing part of the Sprint cycle. Teams revisit identified risks throughout the Sprint (during reviews) to see if adjustments are needed.
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Project Premortem Agenda Sample

Date: [Insert Date]

Time: [Insert Time]

Location: [Insert Location or Virtual Meeting Link]

1. Project Overview (10 minutes):

  • Briefly introduce the project goals, timeline, budget, and key stakeholders.
  • Ensure everyone is on the same page about project expectations.

2. Set Expectations (5 minutes):

  • Explain the purpose of a premortem: to identify potential failures and develop solutions, not assign blame.
  • Encourage open and honest participation from all team members.

3. Imagine the Worst (10 minutes):

  • Ask the team: "If this project were to fail entirely, what would be the reasons?"
  • Encourage them to brainstorm freely, considering both internal and external factors and identify risks accordingly.
  • Capture all ideas on a whiteboard or collaborative document.

4. Prioritize Risks (10 minutes):

  • Review the brainstormed ideas and discuss their likelihood of occurring (high, medium, low) and their potential impact on the project (high, medium, low).
  • Use a risk matrix to categorize them (high likelihood/high impact = top priority).

5. Developing Action Plans (20 minutes):

For each high-priority risk, do the following.

  • Brainstorm and document specific action steps to mitigate the risk.
  • Assign ownership for each action item.
  • Set deadlines for completion.

6. Wrap-Up (5 minutes):

  • Briefly summarize the key takeaways from the premortem discussion.
  • Reiterate the action plan and next steps.
  • Thank the team for their participation.
How to Run a Project Premortem in 6 Steps
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How to Run a Project Premortem in 6 Steps
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How to Run a Project Premortem in 6 Steps
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