February 25, 2018


Project management advice, tips, tools and recommended resources for existing and aspiring project managers.

How to Prevent Project Failure with Pre-Mortems

By Bruce Harpham

Project failure is a constant threat. When a project fails on scope, quality or timeliness, the credibility of the project manager is threatened. Delivering the project is the acid test of project manager success. That means we need to understand how to prevent project failure.

project pre-mortemThis article is about one strategy you can use to prevent project failure, pre-mortems. Using the pre-mortem approach is a positive way to harness skepticism and negativity in the work place. Rather than silently enduring complaints from project members, the pre-mortem brings concerns into the open. The pre-mortem also creates a safe space to share project opinions.

Trust is a critical component to a successful pre-mortem session. If your project team has had negative experiences in the past, that fact needs to be taken into account.

The project manager sets the tone for the session. At the beginning of the session, say that challenging ideas are welcome. Otherwise, critical threats to the project’s success may never be discussed. With that context, let’s discuss how to run an effective pre-mortem session.

Run a Pre-Mortem Meeting in Five Steps

Follow these five steps to run your pre-mortem session. If you are new to the process, be patient with yourself. Implementing a new idea can feel uncomfortable at first.

Note that the pre-mortem is designed to be used in the early stages of a project. Applying this practice late in the game is akin to providing a vaccine to a terminal patient: timing matters!

#1 Provide the Project Plan

In order to provide meaningful feedback, your project team and stakeholders need background. Whether you have a fully developed project charter or a short PowerPoint deck, share what you have with the team. For the best results, provide the project document to the team a few days before the pre-mortem meeting.

Tip: For purposes of the pre-mortem, it’s better to keep the project plan brief.

#2 Introduce the Pre-Mortem

In an effective pre-mortem session, each person contributes ONE idea. By asking each person to focus on a single idea, they will be forced to prioritize the most significant challenge to the project. I recommend giving five to ten minutes to consider the question and make a few notes.

Tip: If your team has good experience with brainstorming, then you can build on that point. Pre-mortems and brainstorming both rely on openness to new and challenging ideas.

#3 Record Project Failure Factors

Go around the table and ask each person to share their project failure factors. During the listening stage, focus on listening to the comments. There will be plenty of time to evaluate the comments later. The only reason to make comments during this step is clarify how the failure factor works.

Focus the discussion on major problems that could destroy the project’s chances for success. Here are some examples to consider:

  • Vendor Failure – A vendor fails to keep their commitment to deliver software by an agreed date.
  • Project Sponsor Behavior -The project sponsor departs the firm to retire or take a role at a competitor.
  • Lack of Feedback Failure -Employees refuse to provide useful feedback during testing because they fear process improvement will cut employment.

Tip: Appoint one person to serve as the scribe. Their role is to capture all of the ideas and send out minutes after the meeting. Appointing one person to this task signals the importance of the pre-mortem.

#4 Evaluate Failure Factors

Following the pre-mortem meeting, start the evaluation process. Use two evaluation criteria to measure the failure factors.

Let’s use the example of a delayed delivery from a vendor as an example.

Likelihood: XYZ Vendor has delivered 18 of the past 20 software projects on time. The likelihood of late delivery on the current project is low.

Impact: Failure to receive the software package from XYZ Vendor would cause the project to miss the delivery deadline. The impact rating is high.

Assessment: One of the two criteria is rated as high so this problem requires further attention.

#5 Escalate Most Critical Problems to Project Sponsors

From time to time, it makes sense to seek assistance from the project sponsor. For large contracts with vendors, your sponsor may be the accountable executive for the vendor.

In any case, schedule a short meeting with the project sponsor to discuss the greatest threats to the project. Bring at least two possible solutions to the meeting so the executive has ideas to consider.

About the Author: Bruce Harpham writes on project management training at Project Management Hacks. His professional experience includes leading cost reduction projects at financial institutions. He earned a Master of Information Studies degree at the University of Toronto.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Tip: If you’re struggling to get started with risk, read my article ‘How to Prevent Project Failure with Pre-Mortems.’