Mitigate against risks that matter with this Pre-Mortem format
Pre-Mortems are among the most underused tools in a Product Manager’s and team’s toolkit.
Unlike Post-Mortems, which most people are familiar with, rather than waiting until the end when everything has already gone wrong. A Pre-Mortem is done at the start of a project or item of work to mitigate against avoidable issues.
In other words, rather than retrospectively looking back at what didn’t go so well and what we might do differently next time (post-mortem), we aim to preempt the things that might go wrong and put measures in place on how we might prevent them (pre-mortem).
During a Pre-Mortem, the team and relevant parties will brainstorm all the risks and things that could go wrong. They then work backwards to identify ways in which the team might mitigate them from happening.
This is my typical run sheet for facilitating a pre-mortem.
Step 1: Setting the scene
I like to start pre-mortems by setting the scene. I will ask the participants to project themselves into the future, and our project or item of work has gone horribly wrong!
I then ask them to begin thinking about some of the causes for this going wrong.
I generally like to make this vivid. I’ll typically paint a picture such as: “It’s August the 20th, and we’ve missed the market window. A major competitor has released a similar product and has gained the first-mover advantage through being featured on today’s news”
Step 2: Brainstorm what might go wrong
Now that we’ve set the scene and gotten the participants in the right frame of mind. The next step in a pre-mortem is to identify all the things that we believe might go wrong.
This step can be as simple as a group brainstorming session, or how I like to facilitate it, is through silent brainstorming.
Silent brainstorming is where you get each participant to write down their thoughts individually before sharing and grouping similar themes.
The advantage of silent brainstorming is avoiding bias and groupthink. You also get high quality and a wider range of ideas.
“Research shows that embracing silence during a brainstorm helps teams produce significantly more — and higher-quality — ideas” — HBR
Step 3: Mapping your risks
Once you’ve identified all the things that might go wrong, the next is to prioritise them and decide on actions to mitigate them from occurring.
A framework I like to use to facilitate Pre-Mortems is this matrix.
This is a risk management matrix that maps risks according to their likelihood of occurring and their impact.
The x-axis represents the impact — from low impact to high. And the Y-axis represents likelihood — again from high likelihood to low likelihood of occurring.
As part of this step, you will need to map your risks onto this matrix.
This isn’t supposed to be an exact science and shouldn’t be a costly activity. Rather aim to plot your risks relative to each other in terms of likelihood of occurring and impact.
Step 4: Determine actions to mitigate
Once you’ve mapped out your risks onto this matrix the next step is to determine actions to mitigate against them.
The beauty of this matrix is that each quadrant maps nicely to a viable course of action based on the risk’s likelihood of occurring and the impact if it did.
High Likelihood + High Impact = Avoid
Low Likelihood + High Impact = Reduce or exploit
High Likelihood + Low Impact = Share or Transfer
Low Likelihood + Low Impact = Accept
Risks in the ‘avoid’ section are your biggest risks.
They are high impact and high likelihood of occurring and therefore should be avoided at all costs.
Discuss ways in which you can avoid these risks from occurring — What measures might you be able to put in place to avoid this risk altogether?
Reduce or Exploit:
Your next priority are your high impact but low likelihood risks.
For these risks, you want to find ways to reduce the impact or exploit them to gain a disproportionately beneficial outcome relative to the risk involved.
Whilst avoiding these risks altogether is ideal, we want to be weary of investing too heavily in mitigating these risks as the effort in doing so might be disproportionate to the risk they present given their low likelihood. Therefore we seek to reduce the impact if it did occur.
Share or Transfer:
Risks that have a high likelihood but a low impact are ones where you can look for ways to either transfer the risk to another party or share it with them.
This reduces the effort in mitigating the risk making it proportionate to the scale.
Options might include delegating tasks to another team to share or transfer the risk to them. The team that you transfer it to might have unique expertise or resources available to them to better mitigate against the risk.
Another might be to bring on 3rd parties that can consume the risk. For example, you may not want to have to manage the security risks associated with payment processing, thus rather than building it yourself you purchase a payments provider, like Stripe.
Finally, not all risks are worth mitigating against.
Those with a low likelihood of occurring and a low impact if they do eventuate often outweigh the costs to mitigate against them. It’s therefore often more appropriate to accept these risks and monitor them.
Pre-Mortems are an underutilized tool for product managers and teams to mitigate risks before they happen.
Rather than waiting until the end of a project to reflect and improve, pre-mortems allow us to preempt and avoid risks before they even happen.
We know that things don’t always go according to plan, and through experience, we learn to expect the typical things that will trip us up. Through a well-facilitated pre-mortem we can unearth those ideas and come up with actions right at the start of a piece of work.
Use the risk matrix to prioritize your risks based on their likelihood of occurring and impact, as well as use it to guide your actions through either
- or Accept
📣 FYI: If you got value form this, I’m also launching an online learning platform with deep dives into specific PM topics like this over at productpathways.com.
You can see what the courses will be like over on Product Pathways YouTube channel here, where I will be posting regular videos about Product Management.