One valuable meeting for all design teams…

Yep. I know. Meetings can be the bane of a professional’s existence.

Infact, a client once asked me to visually map every meeting she was meant to attend in the upcoming week. It proved she had no 'free' time to 'do' her job because others had scheduled her attendance at their meetings. Cheek to jowl meetings … in the end she limited outside access to her diary. But I digress.

Yes, meetings can be unproductive but there is one meeting I think all design teams should plan and attend (and it’s not a WIP) …

The Pre-mortem 

Pre-mortems are meetings scheduled to happen before a project commences.

There are many types and ways to run a pre-mortem, but the common objective to identify possible risks to, and opportunities for, a project. 

Pre-mortems are a safe environment where no one idea is wrong and no one is reluctant to speak up. 

Sessions can be as detailed or as brief as needed.  A large project with many touchpoints and moving parts may need time to discuss whereas shorter or repeat projects may just need a short meeting to remind everyone of the challenges.

What happens at a pre-mortem?

There are many different ways to run a pre-mortem. Typically they include as broad and diverse project team – the aim is to view a project through as many different lens as possible. Clients may or may not be involved, depending on the circumstances.

One of the first steps is for the  project lead to explain the scope of the project. It’s is a great opportunity to check everyone is on the same page: that there is clarity around the strategy, the tactics and most importantly, the measures of success. This is the time to review the talent needed to meet the deliverables.

From there methodology varies, but we like to divide the project team into two groups: a failure team and a success team.  

Failure team

Brainstorm all the reasons the project could fail: what could go wrong with this project? For example: the key creative could fall ill, or it’s impossible to get client approval at touchpoints and that causes scheduling issues or the website doesn’t cope with the traffic and falls over. Post each one on a wall. Don’t worry about being negative – this is the time to think the worst. This is where a diverse project team works brilliantly.  What a technical expert can plainly see a possible failure others may not.

Success team

Brainstorm all the ways the project could succeed. Could be a social media post went viral, or the books sold out quickly, or you come in underbudget and can extend the scope. Write down all the possibilities and post each onto a wall.

The teams share insights and with discussion reduce both lists to three main risks / opportunities. These points are discussed in more detail and plans are devised to avoid the potential risks and seize the possible opportunities. 

But it’s not left there. Responsibility for each of the three risks and opportunities are delegated to someone on the project team. One person has the role to monitor the project with that one focus, alert to the possibility of the proposed actually happening.

In some cases, the project leader may rewrite the project plan to include the insights.

Use the pre-mortem meeting to ask questions.

Even small projects can benefit from an informal pre-mortem. Take the opportunity to gather and discuss possibilities::

To the digital lead: what aspect of this project will keep you awake at night?

To the account service: what is the one thing the client will not want to hear?

To the design lead: what could cause us to miss the deadline?

To all: what lessons have we learnt from similar projects?


Apparently, Abraham Lincoln once said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” That’s exactly the premise of pre-mortems. Preparation is the key: time spent analysing possible outcomes is never time wasted.

What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay