Backcasting / Pre-mortem (Premortem)

Performing a project or product premortem
Contributed by

Val Yonchev

Published December 17, 2018
Collection
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What Is Backcasting / Pre-mortem (Premortem)?

Premortem is an analytical / thought experiment technique, which is frequently used for risk management, strategic or product decision evaluation.

To apply it a group of people is brought together to a meeting. In that meeting, almost as a game, people have to imagine a point in the future where the project has drastically failed and think up different reasons why that might have happened.

The method originates from Gary Klein (HBR article) and was made popular by the Nobel price winner Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

The approach is really simple and transports the team in the distant future in which the product would be launched and failed miserably. The team is asked to describe the reasons, the root causes really, behind the notorious failure.

The practice is very similar to the black hat in the Six Thinking Hats brainstorming approach or the News Headlines. The News Headlines is a really a variation of the premortem practice using visual facilitation.

Why Do Backcasting / Pre-mortem (Premortem)?

The method is simple, fast and cheap to execute. You do not need to prime the group or invest in any upfront training.

It is a great way to identify risks and threats, which can be later addressed, e.g. through early experiments or other actions.

The benefits of this method when making important product decisions:

  • Eliminates groupthink

  • Overcomes blind spots - as planning far ahead tends to introduce risks of overlooking details

  • A psychologically safe way to surface disagreements on important details of the product design - often in lack of psychological safety, people would not point out gaps or deficiencies in the design to avoid appearing as pessimists or getting in a debate over the relevance of their concerns

How to do Backcasting / Pre-mortem (Premortem)?

To apply it a group of people is brought together to a meeting. In that meeting, almost as a game, people have to imagine a point in the future where the project has drastically failed and think up different reasons why that might have happened.

Related Practices

This practice complements nicely Start at the End, Whole Product Plotting, Design the box, News Headlines and any other product design practice.

It can provide a good approach for retrospectives too.

Look at Backcasting / Pre-mortem (Premortem)

Links we love

Check out these great links which can help you dive a little deeper into running the Backcasting / Pre-mortem (Premortem) practice with your team, customers or stakeholders.

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