The PreMortem Effect and the Project Manager

I listened to a Ted Talk Podcast recently. Here’s a link. In this, Daniel Levitin talks about the methods of managing your life, and how a successful life manager will attempt to think through a situation as much as possible to determine ahead of time the parameters of a given scenario, hoping to discover the variables that could go wrong, and try to mitigate them. Of course, many of these variables can not be preemptively discovered, but even the “unknown unknowns” can be preparatory. But some of these thoughts can bring on tangential thoughts which can quite compellingly lead the mind’s processes toward new and interesting ideas.

A PreMortem, as Levitin describes it is a similar concept to a Postmortem. Forgive my paraphrased explanation, but I see it as determining what could go wrong but before it happens. As opposed to the postmortem which determines what has gone wrong after the occurrence. As most know, a postmortem, or autopsy is performed on a body in an effort to determine the cause of death.

I found his Ted talk so very interesting. But, as I believe Mr. Levitin has described it, the idea has expressed itself in the management of one’s life. In my opinion, it translates so very effectively to the role of a project manager as well. In my experience managing projects, the thought process is most important. Based on logic and experience, we, who’ve managed projects, understand the known knowns… These are the things that we’re confident that can and quite possibly will go wrong. Then we have no problem about the known unknowns. These are things like key stakeholders in the milestones on which we are relying to make our scheduling and success criteria don’t make their marks due to things like poorly executed time frames, deliverables sidetracked due to shortages, personnel missing work for unforeseen reasons, etc. The hardest part are the unknown unknowns. How, possibly, can we determine the things we don’t know that we don’t know? This is where that tangential thinking process can help us. The Premortem.

Whenever I approach a project, I think about these variables. I try to discover all three of these key metrics the best I can, wrap those somehow into the scope of the project, and hopefully determine a clean timeline for the accomplishment of the key tasks necessary for project completion.

I find it somewhat interesting that the lessons I’ve learned from managing projects in my past have led me quite decisively toward the destination that having these variables in mind can diminish the stresses related to the project, allow for the clarity of thinking that not understanding the full variability of a project can induce.

Even as small a project as writing a post for my blog, by slating out my thoughts in a written outline form, giving me the framework necessary to the task at hand, can ensure that I both cover all my points, create the content in a cohesive approach, and ensuring that I don’t miss those things I choose to include.

I used to rely on post it notes and precedence diagramming as my exclusive tools. I am now adding the concept of a premortem conversation with stakeholders to attempt to discover even more of the barriers on the way toward a successful project. There’s nothing worse than a project that ends with a toe tag.


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