Pre-mortems


It sounds like a strange thing to say, and I’m not entirely sure that a “pre-mortem” is grammatically correct. Nevertheless, it can be an amazingly useful business continuity tool that is commonly used.

Pre-mortems are a process by which teams visualise and discuss perceived future risks, or new ideas, systematically. The method can be employed in your daily life too! Why wait until you gain 3 stone to start going to the gym (making the process harder), when you can feel yourself getting heavier every day?

Practicalities

The idea behind a pre-mortem is to enable your teams (who are the ones with the most intimate knowledge) to be open and honest about issues they foresee arising. The process only works if teams know that they can trust leadership, and work in a blameless culture - something successful teams should already be doing.

In some cases, (where management is lacking), it may be that the process is done anonymously. However, this detracts from the collaborative focus of this process, and in my experience sessions tend towards slinging matches, rather than anything constructive.

The process should be positively focused. Catching potential issues before they arise enables teams to reduce stress levels, time to market, and bugs in production. Would you rather face a problem in office hours, that is quantified and understood, or an issue that pops up, unannounced, undocumented at 3 am with your tight SLA looming?

Steps to pre-mortem success

  1. Come prepared; the team needs a good knowledge of the system being assessed. This may require a few days notice to enable research. This process also facilitates knowledge sharing.
  2. Outline the process; ensure the whole team knows the process, and reinforce your non-judgemental and collaborative attitude; an elevator pitch for the process, if you will.
  3. Start out with a ‘glass half empty` attitude; engage specific issues, then wider ranging ones, the team may predict for the future. Don’t analyse them yet!
  4. Move onto a more positive glass half full attitude; allow the team to express successes and positive learning points that can be seen for the future. One example might be growth predictions are looking good; let the team know these.
  5. Assess each point; try to quantify stories needed to resolve the issues within your time management process. Also, quantify stories that will lead to further successes.
  6. Assign these stories to team members; ensure that all tickets end up with someone, and not left to rot in the backlog!

Summary

This process is very general and you should adapt to your teams. However, the key points are not to always focus on the negative, get some positive points across too, stories like; “Decrease on-boarding friction to sustain current growth” can be a positive.

If you are a team leader, then run a pre-mortem session - see how open your team becomes the more you open up. This allows leaders to pre-empt issues before they arise, feeding on the intricate knowledge your teams have for your product.