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How to do a premortem analysis for your project launch (+ Template)

Using a premortem analysis for your launch can help you anticipate and solve future problems. Here’s how to do a premortem exercise in 3 steps (+ template).

TL;DR

Use a premortem analysis to anticipate the worst and plan for the best

Performing a project premortem analysis can help you discover oversights in your launch plan before they create real-world problems. Follow these steps to try it yourself:

  • Set aside time with team members or loved ones who are familiar with your project. If you’re a solo creator, you can also do this independently.
  • Imagine several worst-case scenarios where your project was a failure.
  • Break down each scenario into what went wrong.
  • For each thing that could go wrong, write down things you could do now to prevent it from happening.
  • Use your premortem analysis to inform your decision-making and adjust your project plan accordingly.

You thought launch day would be exciting, but instead, it’s total chaos. If only you had a crystal ball to see into the future so you could nip these problems in the bud.

With a premortem analysis, you can.

Premortems are tools that help you anticipate issues you might have in the future, giving you time to deal with problems before they arise.

In this guide, we’ll explore what a premortem is, why they’re helpful, and how to do a premortem analysis in three easy steps. We’ve also included a premortem template you can use to get started right away.

What is a premortem?

A premortem is a method creators use to identify potential risks and problems with a project before it starts. The premortem framework is accredited to cognitive psychologist Gary Klein, and it uses a concept called prospective hindsight.

Prospective hindsight is when you pretend you’re in the future looking back on past events. It’s a way to gain insights into your current situation by looking at it from a different perspective.

A 1989 study found that when people thought about events with certainty (i.e., “this thing occurred” as opposed to “this thing might occur”), it was easier for them to come up with explanations for what happened.

In a premortem exercise, you’ll imagine that it’s the future, and your project has been a total flop. You think about specific things that went wrong, assuming it’s 100% certain that the project failed.

From there, you can make a plan to address potential problems before even starting the project.

A premortem is the opposite of a postmortem, or an analysis that takes place after a project is over to assess what worked and what didn’t.

It’s easy to figure out what went wrong after the fact, but this information isn’t nearly as helpful. You can blame a big tech glitch, or scheduling delays, or an insufficient budget after the project is over, but this doesn’t change the outcome.

With a premortem, on the other hand, you get an opportunity to travel to the future, reflect on issues, return to the present, and solve them.

Why should you do a premortem analysis before launching your product?

A few years ago, a friend and I started a podcast. In the beginning, we were overflowing with enthusiasm. We loved interviewing interesting guests and brainstorming fun topics. Both of us thought this would be our life’s work.

But we only ended up publishing a handful of episodes before the project tapered off. Looking back, it’s easy to see why.

Neither of us had ever produced a podcast before, and it took a lot longer than we expected. Editing episodes took hours, and neither of us had enough time to spare.

Had we done a premortem, our podcast might have had a different fate.

If we had identified creation time as an obstacle from the beginning, we could have preemptively addressed this problem by recording shorter episodes, creating content in bulk, finding faster editing tools, and simplifying the episode structure.

Looking back, it wasn’t a total loss. My friend and I had a great time and learned so much about podcasting along the way. But things might have been different if we had found and fixed these problems before they became obvious.

In his Harvard Business Review article, Klein shares an example where, during a project premortem, an executive proposed that a project failed because of time constraints. This led the company to review the real project timeline and make changes.

This is the beauty of the premortem risk assessment tool: it allows you to take a step back, look for your blind spots, and address them before charging full steam ahead.

Here’s why you should do a premortem analysis before launching your product:

You will challenge your assumptions and perspectives

At the beginning of a new project, you’re confident and excited. That’s normal, and truthfully, you shouldn’t start a project if you think it will fail.

But passion can sometimes translate into overconfidence, which can make us miss red flags. Imagining the worst in a premortem can help us see things with a more realistic lens.

Also, as humans, we tend to assume that our perspective is more universal than it really is.

For example, if I personally love courses about productivity, I might assume that my audience feels the same. Or, if I use Facebook more often than Instagram, I might assume that my followers behave this way also.

This phenomenon is known as the false consensus effect, and it can wreak havoc on your product launches.

Early in his entrepreneurial journey, Podia creator John D. Saunders learned this the hard way: just because you love an idea and think others will too, that doesn’t mean it’s going to fly.

Relying on assumptions instead of validating ideas through market research can ground a project before it even grows wings.

Doing a premortem analysis before you launch can help identify potentially harmful assumptions and perspectives like:

  • Because I think there is a need for this product, people will be lining up around the block to buy it.

  • I don’t like using social media, so I’m not going to post about my products when I launch them.

  • I’m so excited about this product that I’ll work on it night and day and finish on a tight deadline.

Assuming the worst forces you to set aside your natural assumptions and perspectives. This can offer clarity on the real issues that might hold you back. And once you know what those are, you can take active steps to overcome them.

It’s fun and fearless brainstorming

It’s never fun to rain on the parade. The desire to be optimistic and supportive about a project might make your team members and loved ones less likely to point out obstacles in your plan.

But in a premortem exercise, imagining the worst is fun and constructive. If you’re a team leader, this structure allows your group to give valuable feedback without worrying about excessive critiquing, hurt feelings, or being seen as unenthusiastic.

On a similar note, one study found that four out of five employees have ideas for ways to improve their company. But sadly, 34% of employees feel that their ideas are ignored.

Of course, most independent creators don’t have employees, but there’s a chance that someone in your circle might have insights they haven’t shared with you.

And if you’re doing the premortem exercise alone, you can get creative by playing your own devil’s advocate.

In a premortem setting, everyone is invited to collaborate and problem-solve together in a way that feels constructive, not critical.

Put simply, when you start a new project, your supporters or teammates want you to succeed. They might not want to point out potential downsides or flaws since this can be seen as unsupportive.

But the premortem technique gives them a stage to share these potential gaps, allowing you to make better decisions.

Being prepared for the worst is empowering

Whether you’re an independent creator or the leader of a high-powered team, it’s normal to feel anxious before a big product launch.

You’ve invested time and resources into this project. You believe wholeheartedly in what you’re doing. You want everything to go perfectly. But it’s normal for those tendrils of doubt to creep in. What if this is a huge failure?

One of the benefits of a premortem is that you’ll feel more prepared because, by the end, you will have already fleshed out several worst-case scenarios and made a game plan for what to do if they come true.

Armed with this knowledge, you’re less likely to be surprised on launch day. And if anything unsavory does happen, you’ll be ready to minimize the impact with confidence.

Up next, grab a cup of coffee. We’re going to dissect exactly what went wrong with your upcoming failed product launch, and we’re even going to have fun doing it.

How to do a premortem exercise in 3 steps

For our premortem analysis example, let’s say that you’re launching an online course about growing succulents. Your plan is to promote the course through Instagram, and you’ve already done the market research to determine that there are people interested in this topic.

In this section, we’ll look at how to do a premortem exercise in three straightforward steps so you can launch successfully and help more people grow cute new plant friends.

Premortems should take place at the beginning of your product creation process. This gives you more time to address problems and allows you to develop an efficient launch plan from the start.

But if you’ve already started working on your product, no worries. Aim to do your premortem analysis at least a month before launch, and you’ll be good to go.

If you’d like to follow along, we’ve also included a premortem exercise template that you can download here. I’ll show you exactly how to use it in the following section.

Step 1: Identify potential problems

To do a successful postmortem exercise, the first thing you’ll need to do is set aside about half an hour of uninterrupted thinking time.

If you have a project team, gather your collaborators, employees, or stakeholders.

If you’re a solo creator, you can do this exercise alone or bring in some friends, mentors, or loved ones who know what you’ve been working on.

Having a group is a nice way to get more perspectives, but doing it independently can also provide great value.

First, review your ideal project plan. If you’re working with a group, let them know what steps you’re planning to take and the future outcomes that would make the project successful.

If you’re doing your premortem alone, you can review your big-picture launch goals and the steps you’ll take to get there.

Next, everyone involved should imagine that the product launch went horribly wrong. Think about all of the worst-case scenarios in as much detail as you can.

Set a timer for about fifteen minutes and write down every catastrophe that comes to mind. No need to self-edit here. Just let the ideas flow as they come up.

You can do this exercise on a whiteboard, in a notebook, or in a collaborative online document if you’re working as a group. Aim to identify at least five to ten nightmare situations that could arise and describe each problem with specifics.

Here are some examples to help you get started:

  • Your project got delayed for months because things got busy at your full-time job. You never launched anything, and your enthusiasm for the project faded away.

  • On the day of the big launch, you got locked out of your Instagram account for suspicious activity, so you couldn’t do any of your promotional campaigns.

  • You started promoting your course, and not a single person liked or commented on your announcement. Crickets.

  • The first person who bought your course sent you an angry email demanding their money back, saying it was the worst course they’ve ever purchased.

Now that you’ve identified some scary scenarios that could ruin your product launch, let’s distill them down to what actually went wrong. These are more general problems that could impact any project.

Issues like delays, unrealistic scheduling, blowing the budget, not enough outside assistance, forgetting essential tasks, and technical problems are all things to consider.

Here’s how you could distill down the scenarios above:

  • Time management and procrastination issues on the creation side

  • Issues with social media platforms that you’re depending on for promotion

  • Your audience is unresponsive or unenthusiastic about the product

  • A customer is unhappy with the product

As gruesome as it might sound to discuss your exciting new project like this, I encourage you to have fun with it. Think about what wild scenarios might cause your launch to go fully off the rails.

The more creative you get, the more you might learn.

Step 2: Identify solutions

The next thing you’ll do is identify solutions. For each project risk you identified in step one, brainstorm what steps you could take to prevent it from happening in real life.

Of course, you can eliminate problems that seem extremely unlikely. If a meteorite smashing into your home office seems a bit far-fetched, no need to make a solution for it during this stage.

Here are some examples of realistic issues you might face and possible solutions.

Time management and procrastination issues: If you’re having trouble completing your product on time, a solution could be extending the project deadlines or outsourcing more tasks to freelancers. You could also use a project management tool to stay on top of tasks.

Promotion and marketing issues: If one social media platform misbehaves, a solution could be to use several different promotion methods. The promotion plan could be modified to include other channels like YouTube, email marketing, and blog posts in addition to social.

Unexcited audience: Getting audience feedback during the product planning phases can result in enthusiastic buyers later.

Involve your audience by including them in the creation process. Use a waitlist with a special discount so you can stay in touch with your most interested followers.

Unhappy customer: We hope this doesn’t happen to you, but it doesn’t need to be the end of the world if it does. A way to navigate this is to flesh out your returns and refunds policy and write a script for what you’ll say in response should you get negative feedback.

Now that you know exactly what problems you might face, it’s time to fix them.

Step 3: Take preventative action

You’ve thought through all potential obstacles and their solutions. The final step in your premortem exercise is to adjust your game plan to include this new information.

Here are some things to consider:

Calendar: Look at your launch calendar and make adjustments to your timing if it’s overly ambitious. Make sure you’ve accounted for holidays and vacations so you don’t end up launching at a time when people are offline (i.e., Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Eve).

Budget: Give your budget a realistic review. Do you have enough money allocated for software and tools you’ll need to finish your product? Have you included a budget for freelancers you might need to hire along the way?

Technology: Do you have the right tools to get the job done in the timeframe you want? Do your tools work consistently?

Audience: Revisit your plan to promote your product to your audience. Are you posting enough leading up to your launch? Maybe you need to start growing your email list or posting valuable blog content to build authority and trust.

Marketing: Consider branching out your marketing efforts to explore new channels. If you have an audience already, asking them which platforms they use most often can be a good place to start.

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Premortem template

As promised, here’s your very own premortem exercise template you can use to run this exercise before your product launches.

To use this template, start by writing your ideal project plan in column A. Define what project success looks like and your proposed plan to get there.

In column B, assume that the project has failed. Write down several scenarios that could have caused this.

In column C, break down each scenario into specific things that went wrong.

In column D, write a solution that could prevent each thing from happening.

Finally, in column E, identify what steps you need to take moving forward to prevent disaster and have a successful product launch.

By running your own premortem exercise, you’ll be ready for anything launch day throws your way.

While it’s never fun to imagine project failure, a premortem can be an informative way to realize flaws in your project before it’s too late. Use this time travel technique to your advantage for a future of problem-free, glorious launches.

About the author

Nicola is a content marketer for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, and communities scale with their creators. She lives for lizards, loves to travel, and can often be found cooking up new recipes in the kitchen.