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Pre-Mortem vs. Post-Mortem: What's the Difference?

Published
April 5, 2024
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7
Min Read
Last updated
April 12, 2024
Anika Jahin
Pre-Mortem vs. Post-Mortem: What's the Difference?
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Have you ever poured your heart and soul into a project only to see it derail somewhere along the way? Or maybe you've managed a project that seemed destined for success but ultimately fell short of expectations?

These situations are frustrating, but they're also a valuable learning experience. The key to bouncing back and achieving project success lies in reflection.

But reflection comes in two flavors: proactive and reactive. This blog dives into pre-mortem and post-mortem, two powerful reflection techniques that can empower you to confidently navigate projects.

By understanding the purpose and application of both pre-mortems and post-mortems, you'll be able to identify potential pitfalls before they happen (pre-mortem) and learn from past experiences to improve future projects (post-mortem).

This blog will equip you with the knowledge to perform both effectively and incorporate them into your project plan, ultimately leading to smoother project execution and a higher chance of achieving your goals.

What Is a Project Pre-Mortem?

Imagine a meeting where the goal is to anticipate potential problems

That's the essence of a pre-mortem. Think of it as a preventative maintenance check-up for your project before your project begins.

During a project pre-mortem session, the entire project team gathers before a project kicks off to brainstorm what could go wrong. Discuss the possible future outcomes. The focus is on identifying potential weaknesses, roadblocks, and risks that could derail progress. 

By openly discussing these possibilities, the project team members can develop mitigation strategies and contingency plans to address them.

Benefits of Conducting a Project Pre-Mortem

(1) Improved Risk Management

By proactively identifying risks, teams can develop plans to avoid them or minimize their impact. For example, a pre-mortem for a marketing campaign might identify the risk of a competitor launching a similar product at the same time.

The team can then brainstorm strategies to differentiate their campaign or adjust the launch timing.

(2) Enhanced Team Communication

Pre-mortems foster open communication and encourage team members to voice concerns freely.

During a pre-mortem, team members from different departments can share their perspectives on potential challenges, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of potential risks.

(3) Boosted Team Confidence

Addressing potential issues upfront can boost team morale and confidence in the project's success.

Knowing that potential roadblocks have been identified and addressed can empower a team to tackle challenges head-on.

(4) Stronger Project Foundation

By identifying weaknesses early on, teams can make adjustments to the project plan for a more solid foundation.

For instance, a pre-mortem for a software development project might reveal a potential lack of resources for a specific development phase. The team can then adjust the project timeline or allocate additional resources to ensure smooth development.

What Is a Project Post-Mortem?

While a project premortem focuses on the future, a post-mortem turns the lens towards the past. It's a structured reflection session conducted after a project's completion.

The goal of a post-mortem is to analyze what went well, what didn't, and why. By understanding the project failure and success, teams can learn valuable lessons and improve their approach to future endeavors.

Benefits of Conducting a Project Post-Mortem

(1) Identify Successes and Areas for Improvement

A thorough post-mortem dissects the project, pinpointing areas where the team excelled and areas where they fell short. This allows them to celebrate achievements and identify growth opportunities.

(2) Understand Root Causes of Problems

Beyond simply identifying issues, a post-mortem delves deeper to understand the underlying reasons why the past problems occurred.

This could involve analyzing communication breakdowns, resource constraints, or unforeseen market shifts.

(3) Develop Recommendations for Future Projects

The insights gleaned from a post-mortem should be translated into actionable recommendations for future projects.

This could involve revising project management strategies, allocating resources more effectively, or implementing new communication protocols.

(4) Promote a Culture of Learning

Post-mortems foster a culture of continuous learning within a team.

By openly discussing past experiences, team members can share knowledge, grow from mistakes, and improve their overall project execution capabilities.

Example: Imagine a team conducted a post-mortem on a software development project that exceeded its budget. Through the post-mortem, they might discover that scope creep, caused by frequent client change requests, was a major contributor to the overrun.

This newfound understanding allows the team to develop strategies for better managing scope and client expectations in future projects.

Key Differences Between Pre-Mortem and Post-Mortem

At first glance, pre-mortems and post-mortems might seem like opposite ends of the spectrum. However, they are complementary practices that work together to create a well-rounded project reflection strategy. 

Let's delve into the key differences between these two approaches:

Timing

  • Pre-Mortem: Conducted before a project begins. The goal is to anticipate potential issues and develop mitigation strategies by brainstorming among the project team.
  • Post-Mortem: Conducted after a project's completion. The goal is for the project team to sit together in a collaborative session to analyze what went well, what went wrong, and why.

Focus

  • Pre-Mortem: Proactive - Focuses on identifying potential risks, weaknesses, and roadblocks that could derail the project.
  • Post-Mortem: Reactive - Analyzes what happened during the project, dissecting success, project failure, and the root cause behind them.

Outcome

  • Pre-Mortem: Results in mitigation strategies and contingency plans to address potential problems and improve the project plan.
  • Post-Mortem: Results in actionable recommendations for future projects to improve overall project execution and success rates.

Mindset

  • Pre-Mortem: This approach is all about proactive thinking. Imagine it as a team brainstorming session for potential problems, fostering a "better safe than sorry" mentality.
  • Post-Mortem: In contrast, a post-mortem takes a reactive approach. It's like reviewing a game film after the final whistle, identifying areas where the team excelled and where they need to adjust for the next game.

When to Use Each (Comparative Analysis)

Pre-mortems and post-mortems are valuable tools, but understanding when to use each is crucial for maximizing their effectiveness. 

Here's a breakdown of ideal situations for each approach:

Pre-Mortem

(1) Project Launch

Use a pre-mortem before kicking off any new project, big or small. It's a great way to identify possible risks early and develop mitigation strategies to prevent them.

Example: You're the project manager of a new e-commerce platform project.

Before launch, conduct a pre-mortem to identify potential risks like website crashes during peak shopping seasons, security vulnerabilities for customer data, or compatibility issues with different browsers.

Develop mitigation strategies like stress testing the platform, implementing robust security measures, and ensuring compatibility across various browsers.

(2) High-Stakes Initiatives

For critical projects with significant consequences for failure, a pre-mortem is essential. Proactively addressing potential pitfalls can significantly improve the chances of success. 

Example: Your team is tasked with migrating a critical enterprise application to the cloud.

A pre-mortem can help identify potential challenges like data loss during migration, downtime impacting business operations, or compatibility issues with cloud infrastructure.

Proactively develop solutions like data backups, a phased migration plan to minimize downtime, and thorough compatibility testing.

(3) Introducing New Processes or Technologies

Implementing new tools or workflows can be risky. A pre-mortem can help identify potential challenges associated with adoption and usage. 

Example: You're implementing a new project management tool for your team.

A pre-mortem can uncover potential challenges like user resistance to change, difficulty learning the new interface, or compatibility issues with existing workflows and the proposed project management tool.

Develop solutions like comprehensive training programs, user support channels, and ensuring data can be easily migrated from the old system to the new tool.

Post-Mortem

(1) Project Completion

Every finished project, regardless of outcome, deserves a post-mortem. Analyzing successes and failures provides valuable lessons for future endeavors.

Example: After launching your e-commerce platform, a post-mortem can analyze success, like exceeding user engagement targets, and project failure, like encountering unexpected bugs.

Identify lessons learned to improve future iterations, such as enhancing the user interface based on user feedback or implementing more rigorous bug testing procedures.

(2) Unexpected Challenges

If a project encounters significant roadblocks or unforeseen issues, a post-mortem can help pinpoint the root causes and prevent similar issues in the future.

Example: During the cloud migration, a critical data server experiences downtime. A post-mortem can pinpoint the root cause, like a configuration error during migration.

Use this knowledge to prevent similar issues in future migrations by improving configuration management processes.

(3) Learning from Others

Even if you weren't directly involved in a project, conducting a post-mortem on a completed project within your team or organization can offer valuable insights and learning opportunities. 

Example: Another team in your organization recently completed a similar cloud migration project.

Conducting a post-mortem on their experience can reveal valuable insights, like the benefits of using a phased migration approach or challenges they faced with specific cloud service providers.

This knowledge can help with your own future cloud migration projects.

10 Tips for Conducting Pre-Mortems and Post-Mortems

Now that you understand the ideal situations for pre-mortems and post-mortems, let's explore some practical tips to include in your project plan to ensure they are conducted effectively.

Following these steps will help you maximize the value of these exercises and gain actionable insights to guide your projects.

Tips for Pre-Mortems

(1) Set the Stage

Clearly explain the purpose of the pre-mortem and emphasize the importance of open and honest participation. Frame the discussion around "what could go wrong" rather than assigning blame.

(2) Brainstorming Potential Risks

Use techniques like mind mapping or round-robin brainstorming to encourage a diverse range of ideas. Don't censor any suggestions; encourage each team member to speak their mind.

(3) Prioritize Risks

After brainstorming, categorize and prioritize identified project risks based on likelihood and severity. Focus on the most critical project risks that could significantly impact the project.

(4) Develop Mitigation Strategies

For each high-priority risk, brainstorm and develop specific action plans to mitigate or prevent them. This might involve assigning ownership, setting deadlines, and allocating resources.

(5) Document the Outcomes

Summarize the key takeaways from the pre-mortem, including identified risks, mitigation strategies, and action items. This document can be revisited throughout the project to track progress and adapt as needed.

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Tips for Post-Mortems

(1) Gather Information

Collect relevant data and information about past projects, such as project goals, timelines, milestones achieved, and any challenges encountered.

(2) Facilitate Discussion

Guide the discussion around pre-defined questions to ensure a structured and focused analysis.

Questions could include:

  • What were the project's goals?
  • What went well?
  • What obstacles did we encounter?
  • What were the project failures?
  • What could we have done differently?

(3) Identify Root Causes

Don't just identify the reasons behind project failures; delve deeper to understand their root causes. This will help prevent similar issues from recurring in future projects.

(4) Capture Learnings

Document key learnings and insights gained from the post-mortem. This could include best practices, areas for improvement, or changes to be implemented in future projects.

(5) Communicate and Share

Disseminate the key takeaways and learnings from the post-mortem to relevant stakeholders. This ensures everyone is on the same page and can benefit from the knowledge gained.

Conclusion

By effectively utilizing both pre-mortems and post-mortems throughout your project lifecycle, you gain a significant advantage. Pre-mortems equip you to proactively identify and mitigate potential risks, while post-mortems provide valuable insights to learn from successes and failures.

This comprehensive approach fosters a culture of continuous improvement within your team, allowing you to consistently deliver successful projects and achieve your desired outcomes.

Remember, pre-mortems and post-mortems are not one-time events. Regularly incorporating them into your project management practices demonstrates a commitment to proactiveness and learning.

As your team starts utilizing the pre-mortem and post-mortem skills, you'll be better equipped to navigate challenges, seize opportunities, and ultimately deliver exceptional results.

FAQs

What Is the Difference Between Pre and Post-Mortem?

The key difference between a pre-mortem and a post-mortem is when they occur in relation to a project's lifecycle.

A pre-mortem is conducted before a project starts, imagining future failure to identify potential risks and prevent them. A post-mortem occurs after a project has concluded, analyzing what went well, what didn't, and why, to learn from the experience and improve future projects.

Essentially, pre-mortems are about prevention, while post-mortems focus on reflection and learning.

What Is the Meaning of Pre-Mortem?

A pre-mortem is a project management strategy used to anticipate potential issues and challenges before they happen.

Unlike a post-mortem, which analyzes what went wrong after the fact, a pre-mortem imagines a future where the project has failed and works backward to identify what could lead to that failure.

This proactive approach encourages team members to think critically and creatively about possible risks, barriers, and weaknesses in the project plan, allowing for the development of strategies to prevent those failures from occurring.

What Is an Example of Pre-Mortem?

An example of a pre-mortem might involve a team developing a new software application. Before launching the project, the team holds a meeting where they imagine the software launch has failed spectacularly.

Each team member is asked to think and explain potential reasons for this failure, such as critical bugs not being caught in testing, inadequate user feedback, or poor marketing.

This exercise allows the team to identify and mitigate risks proactively, addressing potential issues before they become real problems.

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Pre-Mortem vs. Post-Mortem: What's the Difference?
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