Practicing Pre-mortems

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Before working on Troops, I was usually pretty good about reflecting on experiences after the fact…doing a “post-mortem” if you will.

Something I was less diligent about was this concept of “pre-mortems.” 

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A pre-mortem means taking the time to map out what you expect to happen and the implications of that outcome. It sounds basic, but bringing process to this really makes a difference vs. haphazardly doing it here and there.

Consistently practicing simple pre-mortems at Troops has saved our team weeks worth of time by helping us realize that what we were about to do was not actually an effective use of time. I credit my colleague Aditya Pandyaram for instilling this process into our company and my life.

When you distill it down, trying new things are simply experiments where the only guaranteed result will be some sort of learning.

The process of a startup trying to introduce something new that creates value represents a series of experiments. Your main objective is to try and learn as fast as possible so you can continue to iterate until you’ve learned that you’re repeatedly creating value for customers in a scalable way.

Although the notion of experiments & “pre-mortems” has been most pervasive within the context of my company, you can apply it to any part of your life. A few examples of what really could be classified as an experiment:

  • Picking up a new habit
  • Changing your diet or fitness regiment
  • Hanging out with a new social circle
  • Downloading and trying a new app that your friends are talking about

See, not just “startupy” stuff!

In the context of product development at Troops, these are the typical questions that shape our pre-mortems and subsequently decision making process

What are we trying to learn? (And will we learn anything new)
How will we learn that? (ideally metrics + qualitative feedback)
If this goes well, what does that mean?
If this doesn’t go well, what does that mean?

I really like asking these type of questions because it gets you more pointedly thinking about the implications of the experiment outcome and whether those are ones you want to deal with.

Here are two concrete examples of a pre-mortem in action; one related to Troops and the other from Seth Godin.

Troops Pre-mortem

We were thinking about publicly releasing a piece of software that we built internally that is truly awesome for helping people to track their relationships. I used it for recruiting and pipeline management before we moved to Salesforce.

It seemed like a good idea because the product is killer…

Why not give it to people and build good karma for the company?

A pre-mortem of this decision looked like the following:

Will we learn anything new related to our core product?

Not really. Probably just validation that people like it.

If we launch it and people go bananas for it what does that mean?

We’ll probably have to offer some level of customer support and training collateral which will distract us from pursuing what we believe is a bigger vision and opportunity. Also, success might create cognitive dissonance and push us to question our core pursuit which we have not completed a proper evaluation of.

If we launch it and it doesn’t go well what does that mean?

Not a whole lot because we are getting value out of the tool. Apparently our own dog food is no bueno for everyone else.

So even though launching it initially seemed like a no brainer, a simple “pre-mortem” allowed us to see that it wasn’t.

Seth Godin On Using Twitter

I was listening to a podcast this weekend where Seth Godin was talking about his decision on whether or not to use twitter.

He had early access to the service when it first came out and realized it represented a potentially emerging distribution channel for his work…It’d be easy to get a lot of followers especially because he was early!

A pre-mortem of this scenario revealed that success also meant that he’d have more people pulling at his attention. Responding, paying attention to comments, and even watching his following grow all represented distractions that distracted from his creative process. So he decided that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze and never got onto the service.


Is this a ground breaking idea? No. But most practices that facilitate great success are hardly that. Rather it’s the discipline to implement a process consistently after you recognize it’s ability to create value for you again and again that leads to achievement.

…What am I going to learn? How am I going to learn that? What does success look like? What does that mean?…

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