Pre-Mortem Retrospective

Actionable retrospective ideas that you can launch today.

Effective prevention is better than trying to look for a cure after-the-fact. Similarly, hosting a retrospective is better than scrambling to remedy a situation that is already negatively affecting the team. Instead of catching up with your team during a post-mortem when the project is over and you can no longer affect it, holding a pre-mortem exercise could save you and your team a lot of trouble throughout the course of the work. 

Pre-Mortem means an analysis of potential failure before it actually occurs. Sounds just about right to try it in the next sprint.

The Pre-Mortem retrospective allows team members to predict challenges by imagining the worst-case scenario of the project failure. Then, tracing the events that led to it by going backward in time to determine the roadblocks. 

This method provides better identification of potential issues and easier analysis and planning around how they could be avoided before they become a reality. In other words, a way to prepare for the worst and strive for the best. 

Getting Started With Pre-Mortem Retrospectives

The Pre-Mortem retrospective should be run when the upcoming sprint is already planned and ready to go. The team should already be familiar with the priorities and the backlog so they can make an assessment of possible pitfalls that might occur throughout.

Usually, two lists are created to identify weaknesses and sort them in two categories - “What can the team control” and “What can’t the team control”. 

Having enough time to hold a successful retrospective is crucial. Project pre-mortems are not likely to be as time-consuming as post-mortems but any other distractions must be eliminated to make sure the team makes the best use of time. Set an appropriate time slot of at least 1 hr for an average size Agile team (5-10 people) for a dedicated moment to get together for a retro.

Step 1: Calling Out Risks

All retrospectives, including the pre-mortem format, are for the team only. In a typical Agile calendar, teams will meet for a Review, a Retro and then plan the next sprint.

If you want to try a pre-mortem retrospective for your upcoming sprint, after planning, skip your retro of the previous sprint and jump directly into the pre-mortem for the upcoming period of active work. This will allow you to avoid retrospective fatigue.

At the outset of the pre-mortem, the team members gathers to discuss potential scenarios of what could go wrong. They try to call out every possible risk that could jeopardize the success of the project.

Facilitators allowing the team to lead the conversation and, instead, document the risks raised is a good idea.

In this stage of the retro, proposing solutions is not allowed. The focus is on the potential problems. Team members are encouraged to unleash their imagination and brainstorm whatever issue comes to their minds and voice it without judgement.

Step 2: Digging Deeper Into the Challenges

Problems emerge from unexpected places. After a few minutes of discussion, each team member is asked to write 3 more things that could go in the wrong direction over the course of the sprint, but, this time, documenting their ideas independently from the team-wide conversation.

The goal is to ensure that every elephant in the room is addressed no matter how big of an impact it might have on the sprint. Shedding some light on problematic areas could be insightful and lead to dodging fatal bullets.

Step 3: Shedding Light on Roadblocks

Everyone writes down their concerns on post-its or digital cards and sorts them into two lists - “What the team can control” and “What the team can’t control”. In this step of the pre-mortem process, members focus on evaluating what could be handled under their supervision from the first category. This exercises gives good perspective and understanding of conditions depending on personal efforts and abilities. 

A valid reason why projects go downhill is team members not speaking up about their worries when they first enter the process. This means there is a lack of trust and open communication. A Pre-Mortem retrospective strengthens relationship between team members at the beginning of the work process and reflects positively on the workflow quality.

Step 4: Evaluating the Potential Damage

Analyzing the “What the team can control” list, members determine what they personally can do to ease the danger of failure. 

In the list “What the team can’t control” , the team acknowledges the lack of control in some events and identifies what turn they would like to take in case they occur. The list is presented to the Scrum Master or Product Owner. In turn, their role is to liaise between the team and external parties that might be able to affect the team's sprint to seek resolution before it becomes a danger to meeting the sprint commitment.

Pre-mortem analysis is the core of good project management and de-risking delivery because it provides actionable solutions for problems that can arise in the future.

Step 5: Crafting Solutions

As a final step to this retrospective format, select the obstacles with a potentially crucial impact on the project from either category. Spend time crafting realistic solutions to avoid the sprint derailing.  This pre-mortem exercise is not only excellent to set yourself up for success but also a valuable activity for team building inside the core unit.

The solutioning phase can be carried out in small sub-teams, as a whole group if it's not too large or individually. It's a way for everyone to get a chance to express their opinions and offer approaches to meet the trouble halfway. 

Benefits of the Pre-Mortem Retrospective

The sprint is more likely to be rewarding and productive if issues are indicated in advance. With a pre-mortem retrospective behind them, the team members have a chance to transform some of the potential threats in front of them into opportunities, which give the team a better chance to exceed expectations during the sprint window.

By holding an Agile pre-mortem and addressing the tricky points early, the team feels less pressure and anxiety to tackle the sprint. Also, this retrospective creates a focus on the future perspectives and identifies what is under the team’s control and what’s not.