Buzzwords are an anathema to me. Yes, sometimes a new word or phrase is an improvement on what existed before, but more often than not they are used in an attempt to sound smart or to create a barrier to those not in the know. The more a new word gets thrown around, the more cynical we should be.


Sometimes, however, it is worth acknowledging a genuinely good phrase, because premortem is one of the keepers.


The idea has been around, slowly building cross-industry recognition (listening to safety supervisor Jim Trodden talk about the importance of the concept on North Sea oil rigs is an eye opener), for over a decade. This slow-drip introduction is a good thing. While fads inevitably fade away through over/misuse, this has crept into oil rigs and marketing departments alike because the concept is (unlike your average buzzword) practical and broadly applicable.


The concept might sound familiar to those accustomed to risk assessments, but it takes it further by actively incorporating the ideas of pessimism and dissent (all too often absent from creative and decision making meetings) into the process. As per the Harvard Business Review: “Projects fail at a spectacular rate. One reason is that too many people are reluctant to speak up about their reservations during the all-important planning phase. By making it safe for dissenters who are knowledgeable about the undertaking and worried about its weaknesses to speak up, you can improve a project’s chances of success.”


The premortem allows us to be creative about imagining the pratfalls of any given project. It allows us a safe space to be difficult and critical during the planning stage, to anticipate what might go wrong, mitigate the risk and to prevent it being one of the issues that we end up talking about in the postmortem.


    • At the start of a premortem, the design project is declared a failure. All stakeholders present need to work out why.


    • Everyone involved should be encouraged to write (and not speak, where the usual suspects will dominate the conversation and discourage independent thought) a set number of problems that led to the failure. It is important that they include a reason for each problem, that no-one is allowed to change their own or others work (unedited creative catastrophising is the name of the game!), and that there is a specific time limit, which will help the group to direct their efforts and not self-edit.


    • As a group the risk and likelihood of each problem should be discussed.


  • Problems with high likelihoods and/or high risk should be carried through. Issues have been highlighted and now the onus is on to mitigate their potential impact. Once these results have been shared, preventative action should be discussed. If possible, a plan of action and responsibility should be created.


Obviously the time and effort needed to gather people around the table for a session like this makes it only really worth it for larger projects, but it is precisely these more expensive projects that stand to benefit the most from this pre-emptive work. Large projects are often victims of their own momentum, and this ‘stitch in time to save nine’ ethos (how I’m sure my Nan would’ve understood and described this in far fewer words than I’ve used), helps us to see problems before that momentum gathers too much weight behind it.


By Oliver Brown