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Performing a Pre-mortem Can Help you Avoid a Post-mortem

We know new businesses fail in large numbers. According to Fortune magazine, nine out of ten start-ups will fail. When the founder shuts down her/his business, it’s customary in Silicon Valley to write an essay that tells the rest of the community what went wrong. That is called a ‘failure post-mortem’ and is becoming so common that it turned into a Silicon Valley mantra: “Fail fast, fail often”. This line is recited at technology conferences and plastered on company walls.

Why do they fail?
Entrepreneur Magazine points out 9 reasons:
• The founder lives in a vacuum, wrapped up in his vision and loses perspective
• The idea doesn’t solve a big problem
• They run out of cash
• They invent concepts, not a complete product
• There are big gaps in the strategy
• The team doesn’t have what it takes
• The competition doesn’t give up easily
• The market moves in an unexpected ways
• They listen to bad advice from the wrong people.

A post mortem in the medical world means finding what went wrong and the cause of death. Pre-mortem is the opposite of post-mortem. A pre-mortem in a business environment comes at the beginning of the project, not at the end so the project can be improved.

Unlike a risk session when team members are asked what can go wrong, the pre-mortem operates as if the patient already died and asks what went wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons why the project has failed.
A research conducted by professors from Wharton School of Business, Cornell and the University of Colorado found that imagining the event as if it has already happened increases the ability to correctly identify problems by 30%.
How is a pre-mortem performed?
After the team has been briefed on the plans, the leader informs them that this project has failed miserably.
Over the next few minutes everyone in the room writes down individually why this project failed, especially the things they would ordinarily not mention for fear of being impolite and politically incorrect.
The leader then asks each team member to read one reason for their list. Each one should state a different reason.
Reviewing the list, the project manager or owner can make adjustments to strengthen the plan.

Although many businesses do a prelaunch risk analysis, the pre-mortem approach offers benefits that the others don’t. It not only helps the team identify potential problems before they happen, it also reduces the “full steam ahead” attitude of people who are deeply invested in the project. It can describe weaknesses that no one dared to mention and lets the team member feel that their input is important. This simple exercise will let the team pick up on early signs of trouble in areas that were mentioned in the room by one team member or another.
By making it safe for people to speak out in the pre-mortem, you may be able to avoid the all too painful post-mortem.

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