In this doc, we’ll look at the “what” and “how” of pre-mortems, along with a novel technique of using Tigers, Paper Tigers, and Elephants to run effective pre-mortems. My aim here is to be as concrete as possible so that you can take the steps described here and run your very first pre-mortem this week.
So, what’s a pre-mortem, and what role does it play?
Post-mortems, After Action Reviews (AARs), etc. are becoming standard process at many organizations, usually implemented after an outage, a failure, or even a fairly successful execution of a project.
Unlike a post-mortem—where you discuss what went wrong (and what you can learn from it)—pre-mortems occur earlier in a project’s lifecycle and ask the team to assume that the project has failed. And you prompt the team to come up with the reasons for the failure before
have routinely run a modified version of this pre-mortem script, particularly for major product launches. And while we haven’t been 100% mistake-free, pre-mortems have enabled “calm product launches” and have enhanced team productivity and morale.
Why modify the standard pre-mortem script?
In my experience, the standard pre-mortem meeting was very engaging while the team was in the room. But I frequently saw everyone forget about the progress made in the meeting, quickly reverting back to old patterns as soon as the meeting was finished.
So, I began looking for ways to change that. I wanted the team to:
Actively spot major problems, and
Surface those problems to other team members throughout the lifecycle of the project, not just at that one pre-mortem meeting.
What was missing, I realized, was an evocative, convenient lexicon that allowed people to talk about these things in a psychologically safe manner. Enter the metaphors: Tigers, Paper Tigers, and Elephants.
Tigers, Paper Tigers, and Elephants
The way I like to run pre-mortems now is to ask the team to list out their concerns about the project in three different categories:
🐅 Tiger - A clear threat that will hurt us if we don’t do something about it.
🐯 Paper Tiger - An ostensible threat that you are personally not worried about (but others might be).
🐘 Elephant - The thing that you’re concerned the team is not talking about.
So after your pre-mortem meeting, you’ll start hearing your teammates mention “the Tiger Bob flagged” or “that Elephant mentioned during yesterday’s standup” when communicating over Slack, email, meetings, and even 1 on 1s.
This lexicon for potential threats and problems creates more psychological safety for team members to raise their concerns throughout the project’s execution.
How to run a pre-mortem the right way
While you can organize your pre-mortem meeting just about any time, a good rule of thumb is to organize it one to three months prior to your launch. This timing gives your team sufficient context on possible Tigers, Paper Tigers, and Elephants for your project, while building in a window to respond to potential problems that are identified during the pre-mortem.
The meeting itself is a highly-structured one hour:
Kickoff & prompt (10 min) - Set the stage for the meeting. You’ve all been transported 3 months into the future, and your project has failed spectacularly.
Quiet brainstorming (10 min) - Think of at least 2 Tigers and any Paper Tigers and Elephants.
Quiet voting & group discussion (30 min) - Review and vote on threats. Go around the room and share reflections.
Draft an action plan (10 min) - The meeting driver shares emergent top themes and next steps.
That takes care of the meeting itself. The most important part of the pre-mortem process comes after the meeting: the post pre-mortem action plan. If you are the meeting leader, you now need to prioritize the top 3-5 Tigers and Elephants that emerged from the pre-mortem meeting. This action plan should consist of:
Top themes coming from the pre-mortem meeting.
Verbatim threats people discussed during the meeting.
Proposed actions for mitigating the threats.
An owner that ensures the mitigation plan for each theme actually happens.