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Conducting a Pre-Mortem

September 14, 2012

(The following post by Taproot Foundation president Aaron Hurst was adapted from Taproot's new book, Powered by Pro Bono: a Nonprofit's Step-by-Step Guide to Scoping, Securing, Managing and Scaling Pro Bono Resources, published by Jossey-Bass. In his last post, Aaron shared three tips to help prepare your team to be a great client for a pro bono engagement.)

Pro_bono_poweredA post-mortem is done by doctors after a patient dies to uncover the cause of the patient's demise. It's also a great way for doctors to learn and hold themselves accountable (although it doesn't do much good for the recently deceased on the table).

A pre-mortem, a process that increasingly is being adopted by project teams, takes the idea of the post-mortem and tries to apply it before a patient has died -- in other words, before it's too late to help. But of course in this case I'm not talking about an actual patient, but rather any project (internal or external) that involves a significant commitment of resources (monetary and/or human).

The pre-mortem process can be as simple as asking your team a few questions at the start of the project. For example: Assume that, six months down the road, everything that could go wrong on this project has gone wrong. What went wrong? And why?

Focus on the three to five most likely reasons that the project could fail or go off the rails. Then map back how you could have prevented these meltdowns. Finally, incorporate those changes into your project plan before you actually get to work. Might the patient still show up DOA? Sure. But the chances of that happening are much less likely than if you skip the pre-mortem altogether.

-- Aaron Hurst

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