Planning Your Project: Thinking About What Can Go Wrong

Premortems Are Vital to Our Process

Talking about risk with new clients isn’t always glamorous – but neither is collecting the broken pieces of a failed project. When taking on a project of any scale, failure is always a possibility, but it’s one that we work hard to avoid.

Risk is scary and when an “expert” discusses something that scares them, it can feel like they’re exposing their points of weakness. Even the most skilled driver is going to experience bumps in the road, but an expert prepares in advance for the roadblocks, instead of hoping they won’t happen.

Always prepare for failure

The premortem technique is a set of steps that allows organizations and clients to skip the “Where did we go wrong?” stage. A premortem is an analysis of the factors that could go wrong throughout the course of a project and an assumption that some things will go incredibly awry.  By exposing the worst possible outcomes, we’ve found that it helps our clients to worry about the right things.

It doesn’t have to be depressing

Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman credits cognitive psychologist Gary Klein with the term “premortem.” Klein determined that the experience of predicting the project’s future helped the group share experiences and calibrate their understanding of the difficulties of each task involved. While it may sound grim, we’ve found this a great way for clients to open up to us and to understand that we hear their fears loud and clear.

Tyler Tervooren, creator of, suggests three steps for conducting a successful premortem.

1. Spend one hour listing every possible problem you can imagine.
Scars from projects-past might reveal fantastic lessons for the next project, but this stage isn’t about proposing solutions. It’s about foreseeing the absolute worst.

  • Is one person overloaded with responsibility and likely to drop the ball?
  • Is the amount of content that is being written reasonable for the writers?
  • Will your site attract negative campaigns or attacks by opponents?

Anything goes and no problem is too big or too small to discuss.

2. Pick the top ten problems and focus on the showstoppers.

  • Pick the problems that are likely to actually affect your team.
  • Discard problems you have no control over.

3. Once the problems are clearly defined, come up with solutions.

  • Create proactive solutions to the problems.
  • Make alternative plans for issues that could potentially happen.

The last step that Tervooren prescribes is to assign individual team members a role that avoids the problems you’ve just outlined.

We learn from our clients in each and every site build or creative piece that we take on. By working with clients to help them better understand their own behavior, we have crafted a process that helps us build stronger products and buyer relationships.

The way we see it, nothing makes us stronger than being really well prepared for the worst.

Read Tyler’s original blog post here. Click here for more on Daniel Kahneman, and take a look at this conversation between Kahneman and Gary Klein.


  • Author: Marissa Mills

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