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Annette Franz


Project, Risk, and Change Management

Are pre-mortems and post-mortems part of your work plan?

Published: Thursday, December 24, 2020 - 12:02

Over the years, I’ve written a lot of posts about change and change management. In an article I wrote earlier this year about change and some of the learnings and takeaways from the pandemic and the business crisis that it created, I noted that we had (and still have) a lot to learn. Here’s one of those takeaways that I haven’t written about yet: the importance of conducting pre-mortems and post-mortems, especially as they relate to business continuity. These should already be in your CX toolbox, and if they’re not, you’ve got them add them in 2021.

Pre-mortem, in its most basic (and morbid) sense, means before death or taking place before death. That’s actually a good way to look at it because it is a meeting conducted before the start of a project or initiative in which stakeholders gather to ideate and imagine what might cause the project or initiative to fail (die). It needs to be a safe place for all to speak openly and freely; no ideas are stupid. Everyone must look at the work from all angles.

Once all potential risks and failures are outlined, stakeholders then create a plan on how to prevent failures, mitigate risks, take preventive actions, and increase the chance of success. In essence, they’ll assume they failed and then take a look in the rear-view mirror to understand why this could have happened and how it could have been prevented. This Harvard Business Review article from 2007 outlines how to conduct a pre-mortem.

Post-mortem, on the other hand, means after death or taking place after death. This can be a case of “too little, too late” or “hindsight is 20/20,” but it’s a valuable exercise that can save you from making the same mistakes in the future. After a project or an initiative is completed, whether it failed or not, you’ll gather your stakeholders and your clients to talk about what went right, what went wrong, would could be done differently—and then suss out the root cause of any breakdowns or failures in the project. It’s valuable as a process improvement tool, as much as a way to mitigate future risks or failures, and it can help you streamline workflows.

There’s actually also a middle-ground exercise called after-action review (AAR). It was developed by the military, and it’s more of an iterative review or feedback process, used as things are happening, as the work is being done. It’s conducted after task completion or milestone completion (and can also be used after project completion), allowing you to iterate processes and work along the way, rather than figuring out what happened after the fact. It’s a four-question process that looks at:
1. What was supposed to happen?
2. What actually happened?
3. What caused the difference? What went well? What didn’t? Any surprises?
4. What can we learn from it and do differently going forward?

All three of these—pre, post, and AAR—are valuable meetings and exercises to conduct. Don’t view them as time-consuming or a waste of time. Don’t say you have no time for that. Build these meetings into your project plan. Ultimately, they will save you time (as well as money and heartache) in the future.

As we head into the final weeks of 2020, this is a great time to do a post-mortem on the year—and a pre-mortem of 2021. And it’s a great time to ensure that you’ve built these into your work plans for next year.

“Keeping your risk management plan up to date can transform it from a doorstop into a vital project management tool. Remember: What you don’t know can kill your project.”
Bruce Pittman

First published Nov. 25, 2020, on the CX Journey blog.


About The Author

Annette Franz’s picture

Annette Franz

Annette Franz, CCXP is founder and CEO of CX Journey Inc. She’s got 25 years of experience in both helping companies understand their employees and customers and identifying what drives retention, satisfaction, engagement, and the overall experience – so that, together, we can design a better experience for all constituents. She's an author (she wrote the book on customer understanding!), a speaker, and a customer experience thought leader and influencer. She serves as Vice Chairwoman on the Board of Directors of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA), is an official member of the Forbes Coaches Council, and is an Advisory Board member for CX@Rutgers.