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3 agile tools every manager should know (part 1): Pre-Mortem

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Many methods have emerged from agile work that are intended to simplify the implementation of agile principles and values. While some of these methods will probably never prevail in practice, there are others (such as pre-mortem) that one usually hopes can be carried out!

In this series we present three agile methods, that we are convinced, have come to stay:

Pre-mortem: a better way to plan projects

The concept of pre-mortem ("before death") takes advantage of the simple psychological fact that our brain is designed, among other things, to anticipate risks in order to to ensure survival - especially from an evolutionary perspective.

This exact ability is applied to pre-mortem projects; you brainstorm ideas with all project participants to answer the question:

If our project failed, what would it be due to?

This approach serves to derive project risks optimally, taking into account the experience of all project participants, and to derive appropriate measures.

At the same time, pre-mortems create an atmosphere in which project participants are actively challenged to communicate their ideas, fears and uncertainties. This in turn promotes psychological safety within in the team (according to Google's "Aristotle project," being the secret ingredient for successful teams).

So everyone in the pre-mortem is asked to think outside the box and detect potential risks, without imposing a uniform perspective on all project participants. This lays the foundation for successful project collaboration (Kahneman, 2011).

This is not to be confused with a "post-mortem analysis", as it is practically the opposite, where after a (failed) project, you determine how the errors occurred. This retrospective analysis is particularly widespread in chess.

A practical example

We too at Echometer, use this method both for internal projects and, for example, to prepare for appointments with clients. Before these appointments, we ask each other the questions:

  • What is our goal for this appointment?
  • If we were to not achieve this goal, why would that be?
  • What obstacles could the customer have on their side?
  • What can we do to mitigate these risks in advance?

We're certainly not sales professionals, but pre-mortems at least help us get a little bit better every time. We can also compare afterwards, which risks have actually occurred and which have not. This is how we develop a sense for tricky situations and can better adapt to it.

In this short lecture (3 minutes) Daniel Kahneman explains personally why pre-mortem is one of his favorite methods:

Nobel economics prize laureate Daniel Kahneman on pre-mortems

Like Kahneman, we believe that pre-mortems can do a lot for projects out there, and make a project manager's life a lot easier!

Final notes: In order for pre-mortem to work well in your team, base knowledge on psychological securityis ideal. The 5 team dysfunctions according to Patrick Lencioni are commonly used examples that can help you create an open discussion culture. It's also always worth taking a look at the mindset of team members as another factor of success. You can find out how we can help you develop an agile mindset within your team here.  

In our next article of this series we present job crafting to you. This is a tool that enables your employees to get their dream job without having to quit - if you're interested, have a look here.

Pre-mortem and retrospectives

Retrospectives are a close relative of pre-mortems. Retrospectives are not about looking into the future - instead they look into the past. What went well? What not? And what can we do better in the future?
Both pre-mortems and retrospectives can help you to easily bring "new work” such as agile, fresh methods into your team, helping you become "servant leaders”. Retrospectives can even help you explicitly with this - exactly what we have developed our tool for. This is what Nicole has said about her experience with it.
Accompanying agile teams in retrospective workshops has shown that Echometer helps less experienced moderators in particular, to shine. It offers them an easy way to conduct structured and targeted retrospectives.
Nicole Röttger
Managing Director, Apiarista GmbH

Do you want to try out refreshing and effective agile methodsin your team? We recommend starting with a Kanban board, pre-mortems or retrospectives. The latter, we can help with:

  • Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  • Kahneman, D., Lovallo, D. & Sibony, O. (2011). Before you make that big decision… Harvard Business Review, 89 (6), 50-60.
  • Klein, G. (2007). Performing a project premortem. Harvard Business Review, 85 (9), 18-19.
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I recently got an ebook too "12 retrospective methods from psychology" written - interested?

Christian Heidemeyer, Psychologist & Scrum Master