A Pre-mortem: The Perfect Way to Set up Any Project

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Productivity : 7 min read

A Pre-mortem: The Perfect Way to Set up Any Project

You’ve probably heard about doing project post-mortems (when the team gets together to recap how the project performed, what went well, and what didn’t go so well), but have you heard of a pre-mortem?

If you want to take on a branding project, such as creating new brand elements for your business or revamping your entire brand identity, a pre-mortem is an efficient and effective way to help you stay focused on your goals and the steps needed to get there.

We talked to Trevor Hubbard, CEO and Executive Creative Director at Butchershop, about clarity, alignment and killing problems can make you as an individual, your team, company, and project more successful.

In this post, we’ll learn about:

  • What a pre-mortem is, and
  • How to run a pre-mortem in 8 steps (no matter how big or small your business)

Who’s Butchershop? Butchershop is a brand consultancy that specializes in deep discovery, strategy, and brand design, organizational design and experience design. They work with companies that range from startups to Fortune 500 clients including Zenefits, Nike, Converse, Okta, Mountain Hardwear, Zuora, and Good Eggs.

First, let’s look at what exactly a pre-mortem is and why you might need one.

What is a pre-mortem?

A pre-mortem is a “small” meeting that takes place before a major project, like a rebrand, begins. (Other examples: you might be coming up with a new brand, or planning a move upmarket.)

If a post-mortem is an analysis of how a project went after it’s already occurred, a pre-mortem is the set-up for this project. It’s where you and your team come together to analyze and make an educated guess at what needs to be done next for the business.

Ultimately, a pre-mortem is meant to help scope out projects by providing a more holistic way of looking at the challenges that a business is facing.

It should help your team or business achieve clarity and get everyone’s opinions out in the open as you’re working through problems and building a strategy.

“Pre-mortems challenge assumptions and help you prioritize a strategy,” says Trevor. “When we do a pre-mortem exercise, often it becomes a proving ground for what people thought were issues—which aren’t always the things that would actually make the business fail.”

But why is this important?

“Usually, there’s a huge lack of clarity within organizations. It manifests itself in your brand and leads to things like assumptions and lack of alignment,” Trevor explains.

Essentially, a pre-mortem is the fastest way to get everyone on the same page. And sadly, we all know that 20% of the room does 80% of the talking in such meetings. So this is a way to get all thoughts out—even unpopular ones.

This is especially difficult to do for branding projects because branding is all about perception, and perception involves everything from understanding your audience, to communication, to design, to product experience and internal culture.

What you are and how you show up in a market is a manifestation of everything on this list—and other factors as well.

So, what if these are unclear for you and you need to fix that quickly? Set aside an hour. It’ll save you months of pain.

Let’s do a pre-mortem.

premortem

How to run your very own pre-mortem:

The nice thing about a pre-mortem is that anyone can run it—you can do it on your own even without hiring an agency or third-party. (Although having a thoughtful outside facilitator can be helpful from an objective perspective and keep the pre-mortem in check.)

1. Get your key stakeholders together.

“Typically, you’ll have six to eight people in a room, each representing a key aspect of what you’re trying to accomplish,” says Trevor. These stakeholders can include any team from Product, to Marketing, to Customer Support, to the C level. The C level is very important to include if they get to have any opinion or decision-making power down the road.

2. Put the mission and vision on a board.

To make sure everyone in the room is aligned right from the get-go, write out the mission and vision of your business and put it up so that you can all see it. This is probably the only work to consider before the meeting. And it can be vague. Alternatively, you can put up this statement on the wall: “What will make our [brand or any other] project fail?”

This will be what grounds your discussions when you’re talking about goals and challenges later on.

Actually, here's Trevor to tell you more about it:

3. Rapid-fire.

In a few minutes, have everyone rapid-fire roadblocks and challenges on Post-its. The point of this is to quickly get a list of all the things that could make the business fail so that you can formulate a plan of attack.

“There’s usually some unpopular thinking up there,” says Trevor. “It may be in the context of leadership, culture, marketing, communication, not knowing your audience.”

But having all those things on the board gives you clarity. “It’s the first step to making the business defensible against these things.”

4. Rate each item’s probability on a scale of 1 to 10.

How likely is each roadblock that your team came up with to happen? Ten means it’s very likely it’s going to happen, one means it’s not likely at all.

5. Rate the catastrophic impact of each item on a scale of 1 to 10.

How big of an impact do these have? Are they pretty minor (1), are they crucial to your business (maybe a 7-8), or could they result in *gulp* death (10)?

6. Multiply those two numbers.

Now, you have, for the first time, a prioritization rating of these causes for concern in your business.

Does it stack it up with what everyone had in mind?

“A lot of the things that were low on the list may have been things that people thought were important, but after scoring, it becomes clear that those things aren’t actually that big of a priority,” says Trevor.

“50 points and above are the big things. If you don’t address them, they’ll prevent you from going where you want to go.” And usually, if you focus on the items that are 50 and above, the ones that are below 50 will get worked out just as a natural result of you solving the higher-ranked items.

7. Prioritize the items in order and assign a person who’ll be responsible for each.

Next step is to create a system of accountability and a way for the team to have a healthy conversation about key performance indicators (KPIs). For each item you can ask, “As a group, what do we need to know? Who do we need to know? What do we need to have? Who needs to be involved? What will it take to solve? How much time do we need?”

This is also the time to set a timeline for overcoming each obstacle and determining who will “own” that project and be accountable for its success. If you see one person’s name on the wall several times, then they have too much on their shoulders. It’s a great resourcing tool at this point.

And if someone in the meeting doesn’t have their name tied to any item, they shouldn’t be in the room. They aren’t a contributor or a participant; they’re an attendee (or middle management).

8. Put a strategy in place for each item.

This is where you want to get granular. Now that you have the list, it should be clear that “create a new brand” isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all answer to everything.

“Someone may come to you and say the most important thing is a new website,” says Trevor. “But once you’ve done a pre-mortem and looked at the list of priorities, you might see that the website priority is low—and that the real problem is that they actually don’t know their audience or strategy yet, what they sound like, how they organize messaging, perhaps the products aren’t clear, or they don’t have the right people on their team. Or perhaps they don’t have leadership bought in or they need to create a new category in the market to be successful. Or their competition isn’t understood or they are too similar.”

Ready to have your first pre-mortem?

Through discovery, research, and segmentation, you can look for patterns and inconsistencies. These will help you figure out what you need to craft in order to shape the perception of your brand for that audience.

Put the writing on the wall, start talking to each other, and knock your next major project out of the park.