The Pre-Mortem Exercise – How to build better digital products

Pre-Mortem in MVP building

This is the first chapter of our Leap Digital Insights series. We aim to share our knowledge, experience and the tools we use for our Venture Building and Digital Product Development. And why not begin this series with the end in mind: The Pre-Mortem – How to build better digital products.

The Situation

Building new digital products is as fun as it is error prone. Statistics show that 70% of all new digital products fail. Now there is a wide range of strategies and methodologies available that help remedy with that, including Design Sprint, Lean Start Up, Blue Ocean, Business Model Canvas, and many more. 

They all have their purpose and create value, we love and use them frequently for different challenges. The downside is they take their time to learn, refine and then finally execute on the results. So we decided we needed a shortcut to assess the risk of a project before putting in so much work. Along came the Pre-Mortem exercise. Obviously we did not invent this, but since we came across the little helper, it is part of our development tool box.

 The Solution 

The Pre-Mortem is a fast and easy way to assess the risk of a new project and create mitigation plans before you invest a lot of time and money. It also keeps you from getting caught with your pants down if and when things go sideways (hint: they always do) We use it for Venture Building and product development, but you can use it virtually on any project: from your company party to implementing a new CRM system. 

Now, let’s jump in and we’ll show you how it works.

The Process

When to use it

Early on, when you have a rough idea of what you want to do 

Who should be included

  • 2-6 team members, anyone involved in the project 
  • 1 moderator

Note: the moderator can also be a team member, the important thing is that someone is in charge of leading the crew through the Pre-Mortem process and takes care of the note taking and time tracking.

What tools do you need

  • Post Its
  • Pens 
  • Whiteboard 
  • Stop-Watch (Cellphone timer is fine) 

I know I know, we have a no paper policy, too… but trust us it’s so much faster with the ol’ pen, paper & whiteboard. 

The Workshop 

  1. Ups … we’re fu#%%EDITORCONTENT%%amp;d – 5min 

The moderator stands up and yells at tells the responsible(!) team, the project/product/company tanked completely. Note: Don’t be shy.. Make it real, give it some drama and set the scene

  1. Searching for  trouble clues – 10min

After the moving speech and yelling from the CEO/Manager/ProjectLeader/Moderator everyone has ten minutes to write every possible reason & horror scenario that could have led to this tragedy. 

Note: Make sure this is time boxed and everyone writes freely and without hesitation, you can always leave out stuff later on. Pretty much the same rules apply as for brainstorming. 

  1. Collect and cluster – 10 min

Now, one person starts to put up their notes on the whiteboard. One after another each team member puts up their post its. Build clusters with similar risks. In the meantime the moderator should already start writing down these clusters and risks.

  1. Find solutions – 20 min

Go through each risk and start finding ways to avoid or prevent these risks. Again, be fast, keep it simple, focus on bullet points. Feel free to add additional risks that come up in the discussion. If you find a major risk, mark it and set time aside for solution finding after the Pre-Mortem session. 

The End and a goodie to take home

Congratulations, after around 45 min you will have identified some of the major risks and are prepared when they surface. Have a look at these risks once in a while during the project and update them if necessary. A good time for this are sprint retrospectives. 

Now, go on and build some exciting and useful digital products (or not, if the risks you discovered are insurmountable). You can do all that accompanied with the nice feeling of being prepared when the s%$t hits the fan. 

Save time and download our Pre-Mortem Workshop template here

Venture Leap helps entrepreneurial teams build and launch their digital products. Tell us about your project, and we’ll help you take it to the next level.

Daniel Werner

Dr. Daniel Werner –
Co-Founder Venture Leap

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