Where the Post-Mortem Falls Short
The classic post-mortem is a helpful exercise for any important, repetitive process – where you have the luxury of failing, learning from the experience, and doing it differently next time.
For example, it’s great for things like understanding why a strategic sale was lost, an important customer churned, or addressing a delay in a key feature release.
However, it falls short of being a useful tool for those critical, one-shot opportunities.
For example: ensuring your startup grows rapidly without running out of cash.
A startup always has a million things to focus on, but just a few things truly matter.
Identifying and executing well in just a few key areas can make the difference between success or failure.
Introducing the Pre-Mortem
Here’s where I’ve found the pre-mortem to be useful.
The pre-mortem has two steps:
- Assume your startup ultimately fails, despite everyone’s best efforts
- Look back and honestly answer: what were the few most important reasons?
The pre-mortem allows you to expand your horizons a few years ahead, step out of execution mode, put down your rose-tinted goggles, and ask yourself honestly – if you end up not making it, what were the few, most important reasons why?
You’ll intuitively have answers – and it’ll often be the thing keeping you up at night, or in some cases, the thing you’re most avoiding.
Your honest answer provides a level of clarity to cut through the noise. It allows you to focus on the few most important things.
If done well, you’ll be sub-optimal on many things – and that means you’re actually doing it right. Startups are always resource constrained, and unbridled perfectionism leads to burnout and failure.
Broader Uses of the Pre-Mortem
This question can also be useful for prospective investors to ask founders or insiders in diligence – as it forces honest answers and gets people out of sales mode.
Furthermore, the pre-mortem can be a powerful tool even once a startup has achieved scale and is no longer in survival mode.
It can be used, for example, to stress-test an annual growth plan, and help teams put their focus and resources where they most belong.
Taking time up front to run a pre-mortem can be a powerful tool to increase your odds of success and drastically focus your time and resources.