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Project Failure: Kill it before it kills you

Avoiding Project Failure …

Nothing says success like killing your project before even starting it, right?

Let me explain.

Picture this:

You assemble your brain trust around the table to launch your next, big initiative. Saving the rain forest, responding to a disaster, overhauling the tax code, whatever.

You – as the mindful leader – offer your high level view of the HOW, the WHY, the WHEN, etc. And then you ask for and receive thunderous support.

Sometime later everyone is seated around the same table, head in hands, trying to figure out why the initiative failed so spectacularly.

Then “Jason” pipes up from the back of the room: “well, I coulda told you THAT was gonna happen!”


Here’s a simple way to avoid having to thump “Jason” in the head:

The Project Premortem.

Unlike the postmortem exam we perform on dead people and things to figure out how they died, a premortem is, you guessed it, just the opposite.

Now picture this:

Same meeting, same project, same people (including “Jason”).

You – the mindful leader – after delivering the project overview ask:

“If this project fails, what will be the reason?”

“Now pair up, take 5 minutes and report your findings.”

This provides “Jason’s” moment to shine: “It will fail because nobody is using a VHS player anymore, duh!” (or similar insight, of course)


Now you have more insight and forecasting from a collective brain trust by which you can make a more informed decision and reduce the chance of project failure.

So when you can ask “Can everyone support this plan?” You’ll get informed nods in return.

One piece of interesting backstory is how some of the Stoic philosophers (Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus) also practiced pre-mortems. Except they called them premeditatio malorum, which translates to a “premeditation of evils.”

Similarly, a strategy of inversion or starting at the opposite end was embraced by the German mathematician Carl Jacobi. He used the mindset of man muss immer umkehren or, “invert, always invert” to solve vexing problems.

Aside from the history lesson, how does this help us today?

By understanding and equipping ourselves with this pre-mortem, inversion strategy, we can better avoid friction and failure.

Here’s an example from a recent conversation with my son:

Me: What would make Mom upset?

Son: Leaving my socks and shoes on the floor in the living room.

Me: (waits for that pre-mortem to settle in)

Son: Picks up shoes and socks.

From a more risk intensive environment, like a disaster response:

Response Leader #1: What would make the conditions for our disaster victims worse?

Response Leader #2: Taking them from their damaged home (bad place) and putting them on an unsheltered overpass with no food, water, or hygiene facility (worse place).

Response Leader #1: Right. Let’s make sure if we move them that it’s to a better place, not a worse place.

From a more static environment inside an organization:

What would an arrogant supervisor do in this situation?

(Hint: do the inverse!)

Inverting the problem, killing it in advance, premeditating evil or simply beginning with the end in mind … all are hallmarks of a world-class Response Leader.

These are not the only tools you’ll need to lead the troops into battle, but they can sure reduce your casualties.

Happy leading.


Mike McKenna

About the author

Mike McKenna is the founder and president of TEAM Solutions. He helps public and private sector leaders improve their outcomes before, during and after a planned event or unplanned crisis.Please contact Mike via the Contact page.

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