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Performing a startup premortem: the how, what and why

Guest Author
30th Apr 2015
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Failure is not the exclusive domain of startups. Even the biggest of companies can deliver a dud despite thorough planning and solid execution. While there is no magic formula to guarantee success, one method comes pretty close to it - premortem. Created by Gary Klein while studying decision-making in the US armed forces, this technique is one even Economics Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman agrees with. Read on to find out how you can use it to make sure you leave no stone unturned to make your product a success.


yourstory_startup_premortem

A premortem is a thought experiment for your team. It gets done in a single meeting in which you assume your product has failed and then figure out what contributed to it. Below are five things to keep in mind when conducting a premortem.

The five Ws of a premortem

When

Do this exercise before the launch of the product (or company, service, initiative) but after a couple of planning rounds. It is important that you do not start the process too early or too late. Start too early and you risk not knowing enough to find all the gaps. Worse yet, you could demotivate the team if they find many negatives that they have not thought about yet. On the other hand, do the exercise too late and you find no time to fix the issues you find.

Who

Make sure the core team members are included in the exercise. It is advisable to invite people from multiple teams and across seniority levels to get both macro and micro details. Junior employees are usually the ones closest to the execution and know the tiny details that can prevent the entire project from derailing. Remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes? :)

Why

Start the premortem by assuming that one year has elapsed since the launch and that the product has been a failure. Although it looks like you are spreading negativity, you will find that the results are quite positive when you actually do this exercise. Saying the worst out aloud actually frees your team to fix the problems rather than letting them fester under the surface.

What

Everyone in the meeting has to share reasons for what contributed to the failure. The way in which this is done is crucial to the success of the exercise. The best approach is similar to brainstorming - first write down all the ideas and then eliminate the bad ones after careful discussion. This ensures that you capture all the ideas and do not spend your time debating just the first few points. It also creates a positive environment that allows everyone to share their thoughts freely.

What next

This is, of course, the most important part of the exercise. Once you narrow down your list to the genuine concerns, your team needs to find ways to mitigate them and ensure a successful launch. Make sure you weigh the factors by how likely they are and how much damage they can cause. It does not help to ignore the low-hanging fruit and to fix the rare occurrences. Use the Pareto principle and prioritise the 20% items that will reduce 80% of the risk.

Related read: 10 things I wish I knew before my startup journey

Why a premortem works

Although a premortem looks simple, it is so powerful because it helps you succeed on multiple levels. Below are a few reasons.

  • Improves the odds of success by fixing genuine unaddressed concerns
  • Encourages everyone to voice their fears and reservations
  • Improves bonding and teamwork by giving equal importance to everyone’s contribution
  • Energises the team and removes vague doubts by attacking weaknesses
  • Forces everyone to eliminate blindfolds, tunnel vision, and groupthink
  • Makes the team more invested by giving them a win even before the battle has begun

How we used it at TaxiForSure

At TaxiForSure, we utilised this method for the launch of a few greenfield projects like Nano and auto. With just a few people and an hour or two of discussion, we were able to identify quite a few things that needed improvement. We made fixes to multiple areas, including bolstering our training, tightening the communication messages, and tweaking the prices. I am now applying this technique in my startup - Rocketium, to make sure passion and drive are balanced with a healthy dose of reality.

Read more on product management: How to build products for customers who are very different from you

How you can use it in your own projects

For most products, a few standard reasons will always crop up. Below is a list compiled from experience of our past premortems. These should help you get started in your own premortem exercise. You will come up with many more depending on the nature of your business.

Product

  • team could not deliver the product in time
  • product quality is poor
  • product or operations cannot scale

Customers

  • no one wants the features that the product has
  • customers want certain features that the product does not have
  • customers do not perceive the product positively

Competition

  • one or more companies fast-follow you with a copycat product
  • competition releases a superior product that leapfrogs yours

Internal factors

  • poor team dynamics lead to internal conflict
  • planning or manpower constraints lead to operational troubles

External factors

  • regulatory issues and policies affect your product
  • uncontrollable events related to your geography or industry occur
  • the economy takes a turn for the worse

You can read more about this technique in Gary Klein’s original HBR article. Hopefully, you are convinced enough to conduct a premortem before your next launch. Let me know how it worked out for you.


Satej Sirur

Onwards and upwards!About the guest author:

Satej Sirur is building Rocketium, an app that helps people develop personal and professional skills using mobile games. Prior to this, he headed TaxiForSure’s Product Management and Strategy teams. You can message him at @satej_sirur. If you know developers who seek a challenge competing with Apple’s best apps of 2013 and 2014, write to careers@rocketium.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.

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