PreMortem risk assessment

You are starting a new project. You have a mix of feelings that range from anxiety to excitement. You have your team gathered and ready to start. You will be assuming formal or informal leadership roles at least once during the project. You know you and your team are all in this together. You want this to work out, to deliver on time, to have a product the market wants. 

You also know that all sorts of things can and will happen that will get in the way of achieving the project goal. You can choose what you want to do regarding these unpredictable events. You can rely upon the skills of your team and the support of your organization to improvise whenever they pop up… or you can address them before they happen. Research* conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight —imagining that an event has already occurred— increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. Improve the chances of successfully thriving in a complex environment by choosing to address these unforeseeable events.

In Agilar one of the tools we have to facilitate this kind of exercise is called the PreMortem. 

What follows is a step-by-step guide to do a PreMortem risk assessment.

Set the stage

Gather the team in an hour and a half workshop and we set the stage with this statement: The project has failed. We can’t deliver the product definition. Something went terribly wrong. We have a meeting with {insert here some exco name} to explain what happened.  

PreMortem risk assessment

Do a go around where each team member writes down or says how they define a risk. Discuss if the definition of risk differs between team members. Write down an agreed upon definition.

Risk gathering

Ask the participants to write down every possible reason why we could end up in a meeting with an exco member explaining why the project failed. From now on we call each one of those reasons a risk. One post-it per risk. Remember to encourage divergent thinking, remind them that there are no right or wrong risks, nothing is too unlikely, etc. Some questions that can come in handy to kick start the exercise or to squeeze the last drops of creativity: 

  • What don’t our stakeholders want to hear?
  • What can interrupt the project?
  • What could raise our stress levels to unhealthy thresholds?
  • What would stop you from sleeping well?
  • What affected negatively other projects?
  • What are you worried about?

Risk segmentation

Divide the risks into two columns. One column for the risks that are under our control or influence, and another column for risks that are not under our control or influence. Ignore the ones from the second column. Just writing them down will help the team have realistic expectations on the project’s outcome.

Risk categorization

Prepare a priority matrix similar to the Eisenhower matrix. In this case the X-Axis will be the likelihood of the risk happening and the Y-Axis will represent the impact on the project goal. 

Like this:

premortem risk assessment
Priority matrix

Risk addressing

It’s time to address the risks that have a high likelihood of happening and will have a high impact on the project. Going back to our matrix, we move to our next and final step the post its on the top right quadrant. For each one of these risks the team will come up with a mitigation plan or a plan B. And we will make at least one responsable of the team for each of the risks. Some of these actions should go into the backlog.

Close the exercise

Thank the team for their creativity and collaboration and remind them this is a mutable document. Ask them to update it regularly when they advance in the project and they learn more about their context, the market and the project itself.

Notes on facilitation

We are all working remotely right now at Agilar so we adapted this exercise to an online setting. For live online facilitation we are using a collaborative tool named Miro. To facilitate this exercise in Miro I have something for you that might come in handy. I’m about to publish a template on the Miroverse, a template gallery available for Miro users. Whenever I have the link to the template of the PreMortem risk assessment will update this post!

If doubts or questions leave a comment or contact me at!

I will also update the post with the most frequently asked questions.

*Mitchell, D.J., Edward Russo, J. and Pennington, N. (1989), Back to the future: Temporal perspective in the explanation of events. J. Behav. Decis. Making, 2: 25-38.

PreMortem risk assessment

Leave a Reply

Scroll to top
%d bloggers like this: