The Pre-Mortem: how to learn from failure (before it happens)

Learning is connected to making mistakes.

A confidently uttered sentence in a foreign language is built on countless clumsy attempts to say something remotely understandable.
A smooth blog post (and not worrying about feedback) takes a lot of mediocre writing and fearful publishing.
Approaching an attractive woman (or man!) in a public place and maintaining some sort of composure requires a lot of embarrassing attempts during which your right knee keeps trembling out of control.

Trust me, I’ve been through all of the above.

Think back on things you consider yourself confident at, and you’ll find your own examples: learning is built upon layers of mistakes.

how to learn from failure

The challenge is, some mistakes can take a lot of time, drain resources and…be pretty painful.
What if you could get the learning without going through failure?

Enter the pre-mortem.

Knowing challenges in advance

In medicine, a post-mortem (literally, after death) is the examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death.
In project management, a post-mortem is a similar autopsy performed on your last finished project, in order to examine the outcome and help the team improve next time.
If you’ve ever asked yourself “how could I have done (even) better?”, you were performing an unaware post-mortem on your own actions.

Post-mortems are a great way to intentionally analyse your recent actions and learn from the outcome. But here’s the main limitation: it’s too late. The opportunity is gone. The project has closed. Time has passed. Resources have been spent. The client has left. Team (and personal) relationships have worn out.

Whenever you’re about to start a new project, (ad)venture, or major life change, all you have to do is…change the prefix.

How to do your own Pre-Mortem

The first step to starting your pre-mortem, is getting clarity about your desired outcome: what do you want to achieve?
Be very specific, and make sure you can measure the outcome (or it will be difficult to learn from it). Check out how this guide on setting SMART goals to make sure you don’t deceive yourself.

Let’s say, for example, that your goal is to “find 3 new clients by 31st March”.

The second step is to take that ideal outcome, and completely reverse it: make it as negative as possible. Not only your goal hasn’t happened: things got worse than when you started.
In our example, imagine it’s now the 31st of March and…not only you haven’t found 3 new clients, you also have lost 3 of your existing ones.
Make sure to keep the outcome relevant, but feel free to add as much negativity as you wish.

How did things get to this point?

Now, here comes the fun bit.
On a piece of paper (or a Google sheet), create 2 lists: internal obstacles and external obstacles.
What factors and challenges will bring your future self to such a gloomy outcome?

Internal obstacles are in your control, and often self-generated. These include motivation, poor priorities, not taking care of yourself, waiting until the last minute…you name it.

External obstacles depend on other people or events. These could include an existing client sending over extra work, a team member getting ill, a life event taking your energy and focus…anything external that might impact your outcome.

Go ahead and list a minimum of 10 of each. I’ll wait.

Anticipate the learning to be prepared

Ok, at this point we know:

  1. our ideal outcome and SMART goal
  2. how things might go wrong
  3. why things might go wrong

The last step is to prepare strategies and solutions to either prevent or minimise the impact of challenges. We take ownership of what’s within our control to maximise our chances of achieving our goal and smooth out the road ahead.

how to do a pre-mortem

Next to your obstacle lists, create a new solutions column.
For each internal and external obstacle, write down at least one action you can take to either prevent it now or deal with it once it manifests.
Make sure you don’t rush this part: a few extra minutes could save you months of setbacks and trouble.

In our example, obstacles that may bring you to losing clients instead of gaining 3 new ones by 31st March, could be:
Internal obstacle: I procrastinated every morning.
Solution: leave the flat right after breakfast, and find a coffee shop to work from and use it to make progress on your goal exclusively; get enough rest and go to bed by 11 pm; ask a friend to check in with you via text every day at 10 am; break down big goals into daily tasks to reduce complexity and make it easy to take some action; do not have lunch until you have completed a specific daily action.
External obstacle: too many social activities took a lot of my time and distracted me from my goal.
Solution: cap socials to 3 times a week and calendar them; choose only activities I feel passionate about; explain why this goal is important to me to get friends’ approval and support.

When should you run a Pre-Mortem?

Running a pre-mortem is a great way to prevent challenges and smooth out the road ahead.
This isn’t exclusive to business and team goals: it extends to personal objectives and life changes too. If these involve other people, a shared pre-mortem will allow you to better understand personal frictions without having to go through them: you’ll be able to align everyone’s vision and accommodate differences…before they become apparent (or it’s too late).

It’s also great to bust excuses before they happen.

Here are some great examples of when to run your own pre-mortem.

  • Business and team goals
  • Starting a side hustle or launching a new product
  • Moving to a new city or neighbourhood
  • Relationships and couple goals
  • Fitness, health, and other personal goals
  • Buying a house
  • Moving in with your partner (or a new housemate)
  • Starting a new job
  • Learning a new skill or a new language
  • Going on a first long holiday with friends

There’s never a wrong time to run your own pre-mortem, prevent roadblocks ahead, and learn from mistakes you will never make. Make it part of your toolkit, and share with the people around you: you’ll accelerate your growth, deepen your closest relationships, and make great decisions easy.

With a few minutes of planning, you will save yourself weeks of pain and months setbacks.

— Matt


PS: learn how to make big goals easy and take action every day.

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