Don't wait to recognize landmines in postmortems: You can detect and defuse them in a premortem fashion.
When you look at projects that have failed at your company, can you identify their landmines? These are whatever blew up budgets, schedules, reputations and perhaps careers. In most cases, everyone agrees what the decisive landmine was after the fact. If these landmines are obvious in project postmortems, why not make them obvious in premortems?
Think of landmines as “untested assumptions.” If you try to cross unfamiliar terrain without first detecting and defusing the landmines, things can go very badly. But if you cleared the terrain and could see all the landmines, it would be easy to avoid them. After all, no one steps on a landmine they can see.
So your team has two jobs to pursue. First, detect the landmines. That is, identify all the possible assumptions that “must be true” for your project to succeed. This is the “divergent phase” where you’re brainstorming as many possible assumptions as possible: “What else could possibly kill our project?”
Then you’ll move to the second job: Defuse the landmines. You do this “convergent” work by investigating the landmine. You may quickly determine an assumption is low impact: Regardless if the assumption is true or not, it won’t have much of an effect on your project. But for the high-impact assumptions, you’ll work hard to determine if the assumption that “must be true” is indeed true.
If a high-impact assumption is not true, it’s a potential landmine. Your team will try to find a safe path around such a landmine. If it can’t, you’ve got a confirmed landmine on your hands, and you’ll need to stop your project or seriously redirect your efforts.
Landmine detection and defusing doesn’t guarantee that your project will succeed. But if your project cannot succeed, you’ll know this at the earliest possible point in time. You’ll halt or redirect your project before wasting resources or frustrating your business leaders with sloppy project management.
A final thought: Risky projects tend to become late projects. If you spot your landmines far in advance, you have more time to find ways around them. But many teams stumble upon their landmines one at a time. Their project comes to a complete standstill while they try to defuse the landmine. If successful, they regain their momentum and just when they do… they find another landmine. You avoid this be detecting landmines well in advance.
Keywords: postmortem, premortem, landmines, detect, defuse, divergent, convergent, untested assumptions, project management, risky projects, late projects