The Premortem

A supremely powerful exercise that helps you see what problems you might face down the road, and create countermeasures for them. Do this exercise before you start any project.


  • Type: Written
  • Time needed: 10-60 Minutes
  • Frequency: One-off

Short version

Before you start a project, go forward in time 6 months or a year, and imagine it was a complete, unprecedented disaster. Everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong.

Write down everything that went wrong, and then use this to plan ahead for these potential hurdles.


  • Better project outcomes
  • Greater preparation for setbacks
  • Peace of mind


Have you heard of a postmortem?

You’ve probably seen it in the crime shows – the coroner performs an autopsy on the body of the deceased, to determine the cause of death.

The premortem works in the same way, except that, instead of cause of death, you determine the cause of failure of your project, and instead of doing it at the end, you do it at the beginning. Another benefit, as Dan Pink pointed out, is that you don’t need a dead body.

By identifying potential causes of failure early on, you can prepare for them. You’ll have a plan for each nasty eventuality ready to go. Then, if the proverbial does hit the fan, you’ve got a countermeasure that you can deploy quickly.

The premortem also enables you to put systems, procedures, habits and people in places that can help prevent these failures happening in the first place. For example, if one of your causes of failure is your key developer leaving, you can make sure he or she is satisfied with their work, to minimise their chance of jumping ship.

How to do it

Think of a project or a goal you’re working on. Maybe you’re writing a new book, launching a new product, or just trying to finally get that six pack.

Close your eyes, and mentally go forward in time, maybe six months or a year into the future. Imagine that your project was a complete failure. It failed in every possible way, and you’re left broken and beaten, a mere shell of your former self.

OK, maybe don’t imagine that last part…

Now ask yourself – what went wrong?

Write down all of the things that went wrong with the project. Did the supplier go bust? Did you get lazy and not do any work? Did your key employee leave for pastures new? Did a competitor beat you to the market?

Don’t hold back – try to think of every potential cause of failure.

Done that? Good.

You should have a nice long list of failures. Not the most motivating thing to look at – but possibly one of the more important things.

Next, for each item on your list, write down two things:

  1. What you can do to prevent this from happening
  2. What you can do if it does happen

Once you’ve worked through the whole list, you’ll have a huge list of powerful preventative measures, and effective countermeasures ready to deploy if things don’t go as planned.

Why it works

Simply put: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”

Setbacks are normal, both at work and in our personal lives. NO ONE has a smooth, easy journey to where they are going, and even if they did, they wouldn’t stay there for long.

The key question is, what happens when you experience a setback?

If it catches you by surprise, it’ll hit you harder. You’ll be slower to react, because you’ll have to figure out what to do, before you actually do it. And more than likely, the stress of the setback will put you in a negative state, and it’ll be harder to make clear, level-headed decisions.

Not ideal.

The premortem enables you to do all of that up-front. If something goes wrong, you just get out your premortem, and deploy the countermeasure.

Furthermore, you’ll have greater peace of mind, because you’ll know you’re prepared for a wide range of setbacks.