Leveraging Pre-Mortems to Unlock Better Product and Career Outcomes
Look into the future and send a message to present self
There's a tradition in tech development of writing out the press release before you start the project. That way, you know the value and primary customer benefit you’re delivering to customers and what you're going to say about the features at the launch. Once you have the press release written, you can then discuss whether or not the product is compelling enough to invest in.
A lesser-known but equally-important process also exists in product development: the pre-mortem. While easily-overlooked, pre-mortems are critical for anticipating pitfalls before they happen, both in your product and in your career.
What is a pre-mortem?
At its most basic, a pre-mortem is a process of thinking about what could cause your product to fail before you launch it. When teams and companies develop new products or enter new markets, they often look at the green path: They talk about the exciting launch, the ability to grab market share, or the positive ways people will receive something. But they rarely look at the risks as soberly.
A pre-mortem changes that. Rather than writing a product’s success story, it forces teams to write out the worst-case scenario. In doing so, they can establish three things:
Are the risks well-documented and well-understood?
Is everyone on the same page about what the risks are?
Has everyone thought through the risks and made the effort to mitigate them?
A successful pre-mortem can help teams look at all possible outcomes through a realistic lens. This ensures that they thoroughly understand where the potential for failure lies and are prepared for the worst-case scenario.
How can you run a successful pre-mortem?
There are several ways to run a pre-mortem. Depending on your needs, you can leverage any of these processes.
Pre-Mortem Press Release [product launch]: This is used to think about the worst-case scenario on the day of your product’s launch. What if it failed? What would the New York Times headline look like? This was the headline the day of the launch of Facebook Marketplace. We thought we had anticipated everything, but a small bug got by us. Though we had prepared, we still ended up having to do significant clean-up after the launch.
Murder Board [product launch, external press]: One technique used by politicians to prepare for debates and town halls is called a murder board. Companies often use murder boards to ensure that executives who speak externally are prepared to face any question. Leveraging this for product launches by asking tough questions about security, privacy, and integrity is often a good way to find weaknesses in your product or messaging.
Adversarial Product Management [product-market fit, new lines of business]: Imagine your product fails and is shut down months or years later. Using adversarial product management, you can unpack the choices that led you to this negative outcome. For example, one reason a product might fail is being under-resourced. Another might be a lack of alignment with company goals, or insufficient investment in fraud detection. These issues may not be evident at launch, but can show up later and lead to failure.
Red Team / Green Team [acquisitions, major product investments, new lines of business]: Intuit does a comprehensive “Green Team/Red Team” exercise when making major decisions. This involves breaking into two teams: one that analyzes the pros and one that analyzes the cons. The teams work in isolation from one another, and then come together after their analyses are written up. Teams are rewarded based on the quality of their assessments, even if the decision was made in the other direction.
How can I leverage a pre-mortem in my career?
One question I ask when interviewing senior leaders for my team is, “Hypothetically, if you left this role because it didn’t work out, what reason would have led to that outcome?”
The answer to this question is very illuminating, because it displays a high level of introspection. It also reveals what the interviewee worries about most when they think about the role. One candidate responded, “It would be because you and I weren’t on the same page about the expectations for the role.” This response gave us useful guidance moving forward. After they were hired, we were able to work on aligning about what the goals were and what success looked like.
I used this technique on myself before I took the job at Ancestry. I wrote a pre-mortem for what success could look like, but also outlined what might result in failure. This helped me improve in areas that would have otherwise been blindspots, and encouraged me to work hard to address each of the risks.
No one can possibly take a job without full information on the day-to-day, so being able to address the risks ahead of time can help you get ahead of potential problems. You never have full information upfront, but being proactive about possible pitfalls is useful, in interviews and beyond.
The power of a pre-mortem is not in its ability to predict the future, but in its ability to give you a glimpse of possible negative outcomes. This can provide you with ways to mitigate risks and get the results you want. By playing out multiple paths and possibilities, you are able to see your way forward with greater clarity.
There is no magic in a pre-mortem. There is only foresight. By imagining the message your future self might send you as they look back on what happened, you can make much better decisions in the present.