Monday, October 12, 2009

Using the Project Premortem to Identify Risk Areas

Last week I came across an article titled Performing a Project Premortem written by Gary Klein of Applied Research Associates. The commentary presented the concept of a project Premortem to aid in identifying the potential project roadblocks, before they have a chance of derailing the project. It is essentially risk assessment, although with a procedural twist that holds merit. The premortem is a forum for airing the project execution concerns of the team. Having always been a fan of going in the trenches to ask the team what's not working, this aligned well with my strategy of discovering the unknown.

What could possibly go wrong? Answering this requires an understanding of the possible "what-if" situations while in the planning phase of a new project. It's about risk management and the ability to uncover a comprehensive set of possible negative scenarios and prioritizing them, dismissing some and mitigating others. Assessing technical risk is common; assessing project execution risk is far less likely to be addressed.

An unknown risk to a project will lead to an element of unpredictability, if it becomes a reality. There would not be any forethought of the possibility; therefore there would obviously not be a mitigation plan in place. The team runs into a brick wall and then regroups to find a way to navigate around the wall. A well conceived plan is suddenly thrown off track because a risk was not identified during the planning stages.

Now back to the project premortem. The idea is to establish an environment that allows the team ferret out all the possible risk areas. The premortem concept enables the successful identification of risk via the following principals:

  • Establish a mechanism for soliciting inputs from a broad cross section of the team.
  • Seek out the worker bees in addition to those in the management hierarchy.
  • Create a non-threatening environment that is comfortable for the team's voice to be heard.
  • Listen with an open mind, saving judgment for later.
Consider hosting a premortem activity while in the planning phase of projects to provide a regular opportunity to seek out risks and get them on the table. Through a routine emphasis on this risk assessment process the team becomes confident there will be a place for concerns to be aired and addressed, thus enabling them the opportunity to optimize their project contribution. For your next project utilize a premortem to find the answer to "What could possibly go wrong?" and realize a new level of predictability in project flow.

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