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Project Premortem: A Glass-half-empty Strategy for Success

glass-half-full Hindsight is 20/20 and the Monday morning quarterback absolutely saw every play going a better way. There is a definite advantage to hindsight, and the smartest people in business use those experiences to make their next project stronger. After-action reports, recaps and post-mortems are exercises in learning from what happened. But why wait for the end of your project? Heck, why even wait for your project to start? Unless your project was derailed by a zombie apocalypse, you may have foreseen some troubles or missed opportunities if you’d taken some time beforehand to consider “what-ifs.” Enter the pre-mortem. Gather your project team and make the following untimely announcement: Something went horribly wrong and our project failed. What happened? Trust me when I say that this makes for an uneasy conference room, but have the courage to be the pessimist! This is a brainstorming session in marketing macabre. A chance to put on the table the many ways your project can and may fail. The goal is to harden your strategy and guard against these potential pitfalls as much as possible. Step 1: Plan the Perfect Murder Your new website has failed. Here’s how it will happen:
  1. Hackers take down the server.
  2. You launched, but the site wasn’t ready to handle the traffic load.
  3. Users don’t know how to buy your product or service.
  4. Users aren’t learning enough about you to care to use your product or service.
  5. Your traffic has plummeted because:
    1. You’ve lost search engine ranking.
    2. You changed the address of popular pages.
    3. Your competitor built a website that is easier to use.
    4. Your sales from the new website have not increased as expected.
Welcome the absurd to keep the mood light. You are, after all, planning the demise of a beloved project. You may want to take frequent forays into Step 2 to keep morale high. Step 2: Plan the Perfect Defense Once you have a strong list of possible doom scenarios, or when the energy in the room begins to sink, shift to planning victories over your list of foes and woes: – Hackers won’t take down our servers if we’re using one of the most secure setups available, with a few iterations of backup. Even if the Eastern United States is flooded by flash-global-warming, our website will survive! – Our new site should be as optimized for machines as it will be for people. We’ll be careful to use redirects, digital ‘change of address’ forms, so that we maintain valuable inbound links – and our users’ bookmarks will continue working as well! This is an invigorating step. All the wisdom of being the Monday-morning quarterback, without the worry of having lost the game. Harness that energy with one more round of brainstorming. Step 3: Consider Missed Opportunities – Before They’re Missed Our project was a success, but it could’ve been better – what did we miss? Talk about the troubles or opportunities that won’t break the project, but may just make it. Extra functionality, better use of technology, timely public relations outreach or something as simple as higher-quality photography – this is the opportunity to skip that palm-to-head, Damn, I wish I thought of that! experience.
  1. We could’ve had more customers to the website if we used our email lists.
  2. We could’ve had a better representation of our products if we had some nicer photography.
  3. We could’ve seen an increase in sales with a better guided user experience.
Whenever you can, and whenever viable, account for these possible “opportunities” in your plan and project. Step 4: Be OK with Panic and Leave Pessimism Behind Solve the major potential pitfalls in your plan and account for missed opportunities before you miss them – then launch your plan. No matter how bad your list of potential pitfalls may look, one of the only guaranteed ways to fail is to not launch while your team is stuck in analysis paralysis. End on the high-note of optimism. Review all the new ways your project may find success, and how much stronger you plan is for having done the exercise. There’s a time for pessimism, but your project would never have made it this far without optimism. Acknowledgments: My thanks to Gary Klein, Daniel Kahneman and, most recently, Ryan Holiday for their work in discussing prospective hindsight. Because of their inspiration, I’ve been able to fail in many, many projects from the comfort and safety of a whiteboard, to then launch successfully. 
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