A process for reducing risk in projects is for a newly formed team to undertake a pre-mortem. It's similar to a risk identification/analysis workshop, as the project team conduct a workshop early or mid-project to consider such points as: have we correctly identified, and do we share an understanding of, the problem? Will the outputs achieve the outcomes and deliver the benefits? And what are our significant challenges and constraints?
While these workshops are effective as a chance to reflect on experience before moving forward, they are generally introspective. They are based on the perceptions of the incumbent project team who may already be blinkered by being in the project honeymoon phase and established ways of doing things. Without external input, these sessions draw on a relatively small and homogeneous pool of knowledge, which can limit innovation and critical thinking.
Enter the concept of a peer-assisted pre-mortem.
What is a peer-assisted pre-mortem?
The peer-assisted pre-mortem is where the initiating project team undertakes a pre-mortem with advice from a relevant closing project team, based on the lessons they learned from their completed project. In this, you and your team will present the objectives and challenges of your project and call on the closing project team to advise on how they would handle the challenge based on their experience of the project they have just completed. This is best conducted at project initiation or at the early stages of project planning.
Here are eight top tips on how to prepare and run these meetings:
- You should select and invite key personnel from a closing or recently completed project that shares similarities with the project that is about to start. As the meeting facilitator, book no more than 60–90 minutes with the two teams to run this. Send your team a short description of what it will entail and take the time to review the approach on your own so that you are confident in communicating it to your team.
- Make sure that sufficient details of the project objectives, outcomes, deliverables, risks and benefits are shared in advance, so the team have a chance to digest the information and gather their thoughts individually. This is most effective when there are no more than 12 people involved and when the team includes a range of subject matter experts from the closing project.
- At the meeting, a few minutes are required to pull people into a different headspace. Following any necessary introductions, start the session with a quick ‘thinking outside the box’ icebreaker question or challenge. Ensure everyone is introduced and all are comfortable with the objective and the process.
- State the objective and the process. The most important factor to communicate and monitor throughout is that it is not about what has happened in the project that is closing. Focus on the initiating project and application of the lessons to inform the future. The participants should be empowered to call each other out if the conversation moves away from the focus of the initiating project.
- Briefly summarise the project objective, outcomes, scope, deliverables, cost and benefits as a reminder to all participants. Summarise the risks identified to date and invite the outgoing project team to comment/add.
- State the concerns or issues for the project and invite the outgoing project team for their advice on how they might approach the issues based on what they have recently learned. Note: it is important not to identify/dwell on any failures of the closing project. Share your concerns about the project and ask: what does this project need that we don’t have?
- Identify three to four key things that you might do to improve the project and how you would know if they are successful.
- Reflect on the workshop and thank the closing project team for their participation.
A brief summary of an action plan leading from the workshop is valuable to the initiating project team — and the closing one. It's critical that the learning from the project pre-mortem now be included in the scope, work breakdown, cost, risk and issues aspects of the project. Failure to embed these lessons will likely result in reliving the mistakes of the past.
It's also a good idea to pass them on to your peers, community of practice and your project or programme management office. Everyone wants to be part of a successful project. Coming off a project can be somewhat deflating and people can be concerned if their project did not quite deliver everything. Providing feedback that they have positively contributed to the exercise is a useful way of demonstrating that their effort and expertise is valued and helps build a culture of continuous improvement.
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