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My #1 tool to help mitigate innovation project risk

Executing innovation is hard. There are numerous moving parts with many things that can go wrong. It is often the least of the worries that turn into the deadly element. With innovation projects it is often the unknowns that kill you. The unknowns can include things like:

  • Customer internal dynamics, such as power structures
  • Customers’ internal projects and how they balance resources to them

  • Customers’ lacking capabilities and required assets, something you often uncover as you move forward in the innovation process. Example: Having enough data to actually deliver data insights.

The pre-mortem

A tool I use extensively, i.e. In 90% of all engagements that I run is the “pre-mortem”. The pre-mortem comes in many fashions and forms, and I always customize the pre-mortem to the context. At its very basic, the pre-mortem of the following elements:

  1. What are the risks
  • How can we mitigate the risks

  • The pre-mortem exercise can be done in as little as 5-10 minutes or can last several hours. It all depends on the project context and scope.

    An example of the pre-mortem for a current rapid innovation project

    I want to make the tool clear to you why I’d like to share the pre-mortem that I did with my project team earlier today.

    The pre-mortem template we used for our rapid innovation project:

    How we ran the pre-mortem

    What you need?

    I recommend you use a whiteboard, stickies and markers and that you run it as you would any other design exercise. Having said this, I’ve run it in many different ways; I’ve run it with very large groups where I’ve led rapid facilitation, and down to doing it as a one-on-one. It all depends on what is available to you and how much time you have. In the end the goal is to define the risks and how you will mitigate them.

    The flow

    We ran the project pre-mortem in the following way:1. Set the stage and introduce the tool and desired outcome with the exercise then explain the rules, such as:

    • Share openly, don’t hold anything back
    • Get all the risks out, don’t filter
    • Follow the process and guidance
    • 1 voice at a time
    • Etc.

    The typical rules of good engagement apply for this exercise. 2. Questions? Before you start you want to make sure everyone understands the what, so what and now what from this exercise. 3. Everyone brainstorms across the entire board using the silent ideation method, i.e. writing down 1 risk per sticky note. You might also go category by category, but we did it this way to save time.4. Sharing of the risks, mitigation’s, goals while putting them on the board, 1 person at a time, with clustering happen as you move through. 5. Further clustering, if need be. Everyone clusters. 6. Voting on the top 3 risks. We used dot votes. 7. Discussion and additional perspectives and additions to the risks, mitigation’s and goals. We produced a number of additional risks and also found a lot of different ways to de-risk the top risk factors. This piece of the process is a critical step as this is where you find the seeds for next actions.8. Defining next actions and owners. As the project owner I took lead on managing customer and VAT risk. There was some homework for everyone, including having the design team do more homework on the customer’s industry, for me to secure value engineering resources, and other elements. Step 9 – Optional sharing with customer: I also decided to share some of these perspectives with the customer executive and naturally with the Global Account Director. The point of doing this is to continue to qualify for buy-in and signal partnership. Additionally by asking them to support the pre-mortem you stand a greater chance of uncovering more of the unknowns and important success factors.


    The pre-mortem exercise is one of my favorites to use across any project.

    • The pre-mortem helps you avoid the biggest pitfalls and uncovers many of the unknown factors…the ones that often end up killing you.
    • It forces everyone to think through and openly share what could (or might already have been issues). With the pre-mortem the participants are free to share all concerns in the spirit of mutual benefit.
    • The pre-mortem is excellent in understanding unknowns and risk factors, from the customers perspective, if you engage them in the process (refer to step 9).
    • An additional, and often overlooked benefit, of this process is the alignment it creates. Through deeper dive and discussion it becomes clearer to everyone why we are doing the project, where uncertainty and questions lie and how we march forward together to success.

    Next time you do any project that involve multiple parties with different agendas and schedules I strongly suggest you incorporate the pre-mortem.