Kill your problems with the Pre-Mortem


There’s no training or schooling that prepares you for running a successful company — for a simple reason.

Trust, clarity and personalities are not curriculum.

It is absolutely true that any problem you or your company faces right now or has faced in the past is a leadership problem. I’ll invoke the sacred playground rules and double-dog dare you to come up with an issue that can’t be traced back to: a break down in expectations, too many assumptions, lack of clarity, zero accountability, wrong people, bad client, too much hierarchy, not enough hierarchy, lack of focus, no strategy, no goals, the wrong goals, missed opportunities, market collapse, competitors.

These all stem from a failure in leadership. And what is the solution for leadership problems, but supreme and absolute clarity? Clarity brings vision, and vision lets you see problems and opportunities from a proactive angle.

Clarity. So simple, right? Go ahead, get clear on stuff — and then get the other 100 people in your company to get clear too. You’ll probably find it’s not an easy transition.

One of the smartest things I’ve ever done for Butchershop is get myself a leadership coach. His name is Jeremiah, founder of Forging Leaders. One day, Jeremiah told me no one cares about my problems. And he’s right. Fortunately, I care about my problems. I spend a tremendous amount of time trying to make Butchershop better. Every day I set people up to win, solve problems and put out fires, align with people, offer feedback, try to understand the individual people on my team and in my company to know what makes them tick — all while trying to run a business, keep clients happy, pay the bills, protect us from foreseeable and unforeseeable problems, keep us focused, move in a positive direction, make hard decisions, and sift through thousands of pieces of input to prioritize and keep our ship pointed true north.

I’m surrounded by an incredible team and dedicated, smart employees who all believe in me and the company we’ve built together, but it isn’t sunny outside every day. Many nights I’ve been greeted by the 3 am cold sweats and concerned thoughts that replay like a haunted broken record. It’s fair to say that I am aging faster because of the strain this level of commitment to making Butchershop better begets. But I continue to do it because I care about the good we do—solving complex problems and helping people grow. I love seeing our work change people for the better. These things may not be glorious or sexy, but they motivate me. I can’t wake up without asking myself “How can we be better than we were yesterday? How can we get people to plug in to make our company better than it was today?” “How can we get hyper clear on what we need to do—together?”

One way is the Pre-Mortem.

The pre-mortem.

Use this any time you want to bring a group together for alignment, transparency, action and accountability. It works on projects as well as internal company initiatives big or small.

You will need Post-it notes and Sharpies for up to 8 people, a clean wall, distraction-free room, one person to keep track of time, and one person who is the “rabbit hole” monitor (to prevent tangents and solution dialogue). It is also okay to use “project” in the abstract with this exercise. You can substitute things like strategy change, company pivot, new product ideas, campaign, starting a business or a startup venture, etc. It also works for analyzing an investment opportunity, testing a market, and exploring a potential big idea or vision.

Here’s the basic setup.

Set a meeting time for 1 hour and invite stakeholders and people who will be involved or play a role in the success of your project. (No more than 8 people)

Start by making a statement about about a goal-oriented project or topic you are going to pre-mortem. This is usually the person who called the pre-mortem meeting. (It helps to have an exec sponsor or someone that is in a leadership role to be on board and co-present.)

Next, go over the steps of the pre mortem.


Step 1

Write down all the things you think would make you, the team, the company, the client fail in achieving your goal or completing the project (Max 3 min)

Step 2

Go around the room, with each person reading one of the items on their Post-its. No person should have more than 5. Beware of rabbit holes or people asking for clarification. This isn’t the time to do that. After each person reads a Post-it, they should neatly put it up on the wall. (Max 10 min)

Step 3

The moderator will now read each Post-it out loud to the group asking the group to assign two numbers on a scale of one through ten. The first number is a group decision on the likelihood of the thing on that post-it note happening. The second number is a group decision on the item’s negative impact on the project, company initiative, or client relationship. Spend no more than 1 min on each of these. (Max 30 min)

Step 4

Multiply the two numbers to get a score for each Post-it. This can be done quickly by the moderator. (Max 2 min)

Step 5

With a score for each, you can now re-order each Post-it, from the largest to smallest number. These are now the scores that give you insight into the big things and the little things. Some will be more complicated to handle and others easier. Anything below a score of 30 you can pretty much ignore because those things typically work themselves out in solving for the big things. (Max 2 min)

Step 6

Move through each Post-it and assign an owner. Someone in the room will be responsible for solving that problem. This doesn’t mean they do it alone. It just means that they will be responsible for getting the right people involved, with specific measurable actions and time-stamped check-ins to show progress. This can be a separate meeting and should be. You cannot have two people responsible for one thing. (Max 5 min)

Step 7

Moderator must record the pre-mortem with the ratings and the owner in a document and share with the group. (It is also good to use the end of the pre-mortem to set expectations for next steps: set a meeting with the objective to review your pre-mortem items, set measurable goals and key performance actions items—for each.) (Max 5 min)

Step 8

Now high-five everyone in the room! Congratulations you’ve just moved through a massive amount of information, built alignment, assigned owners, and have next steps.

The follow through.

This is when things get done and you keep the train moving. It’s also where drop off can happen. Here are a couple things you can do to make the turn from observation and alignment, to action and accountability simple and actionable for each team member.

Step 1

Meet with each team member to create Core Responsibilities and Goals. Make these realistic, time-blocked, and achievable.

Step 2

Check in regularly around those goals with agreed upon documentation on the time that was set. This is accountability.

What could go wrong.

If a pre-mortem doesn’t prove effective, there’s a good chance it’s for one of these reasons.

— You don’t clearly articulate and socialize the problem, opportunity, vision or goals.
— You already know the answers.
— You don’t have an exec sponsor in the group.
— You left out a necessary team member.
— You’re using it to make someone on the team feel bad.
— You allow rabbit holes to open up.
— You turn the Pre-Mortem into a problem solving meeting.
— No follow through.
— People have bad attitudes or don’t participate.
— You don’t facilitate with confidence and efficiency.
— You change the rules and do this online or via email.

These are the requirements of the Pre-Mortem. A simple, but effective way to address leadership problems with clarity, alignment, accountability, and follow through.

Try it out. Let me know how it works at


  • Method


Summer 2018