Putting Pre-mortems Into Practice

This Week’s Thought

Making pre-mortems part of your standard practices will allow you to get out in front of potential pitfalls before launching your next event, project, or initiative.

Last Friday, I attended an event hosted by Vanderbilt University’s innovation center (aka the Wond’ry). The daylong event was part of the Wond’ry’s Founder program. Founder, is a business incubator for a select group of start-ups. It provides entrepreneurs a space to work, access to seasoned mentors, and the opportunity to learn and grow together.

The event’s organizers earmarked one hour in the schedule for me to present on leadership and provide lessons from my book, The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. My goal was to help the business owners to explore how they will lead themselves and a growing team of people in the coming weeks, months, and years. For many founders, the road from a business idea to a viable company is new and fraught with numerous leadership challenges.

However, I was not attending solely as a university faculty member who specializes in leadership development. I was also there as the cofounder of Leddin Group, a start-up that was selected as part of the Founder program. (I have lots of exciting news to share about the work Leddin Group is doing and how we are disrupting leadership development, but I’ll leave that for another day and a future newsletter.)

Suffice it to say that last Friday’s session was a day filled with inspiration, insight, and engagement. I was thrilled to take part in any way possible!

Yesterday morning, one of the event organizers invited me to an after-action review (AAR). You are likely familiar with the idea of an AAR or post-mortem. After completing an event, project, or some other initiative, time is set aside for organizers to explore:

  • What had they accomplished?
  • What went well?
  • Where had they struggled?
  • What can they do better in the future?

Hopefully, conducting post-mortem sessions is a regular practice for you and your team. If not, I encourage you to start. Yes, post-mortems take time, but they will improve you, your team, and your future efforts.

  • A meeting you may be less familiar with is a pre-mortem session. These occur before you start the event, project, or initiative. Pre-mortems provide you and your team a chance to step back and reflect on your efforts, but they do it in a proactive manner to explore what might cause your efforts to fail. Participants work to answer:
  • What are our goals for the event, project, or initiative?
  • What might cause us to fail (e.g., resources, processes, structures, customers, schedule, etc.)?
  • How can we address potential issues before they arise?

This week’s tool and video will help you and your team to conduct pre-mortems. Proactively listen to your team members’ concerns, ask questions to understand issues better, and ultimately make intelligent decisions about handling potential pitfalls. Identifying and addressing a problem before it becomes a problem will give your team great satisfaction, increase morale, and empower people to do it again.

As you can see, conducting effective pre-mortems, like many leadership tasks, require you to ask good questions and listen effectively. Fortunately, my most recent Leadership Lab podcast will help you to do just that. I interviewed Certified Forensic Interviewer Michael Reddington and learned how to better approach and conduct effective conversations using proven techniques, strategies, and frameworks. I learned a great deal talking with Michael about the importance of vision and influence. I hope you find the conversation insightful too.

Today’s Questions

  1. Do you regularly conduct pre-mortems? Why or why not?
  2. What is/would be the value to you and your team of consistently conducting pre-mortems?
  3. What could you do to better integrate and apply the pre-mortem concept into your normal routine?

Today’s Challenge

Identify an event, project, or initiative that you are about to undertake and schedule a pre-mortem meeting. Think through who needs to be there and send out the invitation.


Episode 157: Unlock the Value in Your Conversations with Certified Forensic Investigator Michael Reddington

Putting Pre Mortem Intro Practice Worksheet