220. Pre-Mortem

August 24, 2021

Are premortems as morbid as their name suggests or are they difficult but necessary measures to take for identifying possible future threats? This is the topic we explore today and we have our guest extraordinaire Sophie Creutz back on the show to help us tackle it. Our discussion is filled with strong arguments from both sides of the table. On the one hand, premortems could be seen as pointless for the most part because they take up precious time focussing on threats everybody is already aware of. On the other hand, they allow teams to get the challenges that lie ahead into the open which builds the psychological safety that is so vital to the development process. We also explore the most appropriate times to run premortems and how they should be structured so that threats can be placed in three buckets, tigers, paper tigers, and elephants. Tune in and dive down the rabbit hole of premortems with us today!

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Discussing premortems and post-mortems and the morbidity of the names.
  • Defining premortems as sessions where you identify possible future problems.
  • Big releases where a lot can go wrong and when to run premortems.
  • Focusing on individual features and how to run premortems.
  • Slotting possible problems into three categories: Tigers, paper tigers, and elephants.
  • William’s argument for why premortems are a waste of time mostly.
  • How to make premortems more effective through preparation.
  • The importance of psychological safety and how better premortems work toward this end.
  • Bringing problems into the open and being able to talk about them more easily in future.
  • How premortems can potentially lead to higher anxiety about problems that are not real.


If you are a software developer or technology leader looking to stay on top of the latest news in the software development world, or just want to learn actionable tactics to improve your day-to-day job performance, this podcast is for you.

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Transcript for Episode 220. Pre-Mortem


[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast, living large in New York. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today.

[0:00:09.3] DA: Dave Anderson. 

[0:00:10.1] MN: Our producer.

[0:00:13.4] WJ: William Jeffries.

[0:00:15.1] MN: Our guest extraordinaire.

[0:00:17.1] SC: Sophie Creutz.

[0:00:18.5] MN: Today, we’ll be talking about premortems, how to run one and is it worth it?

[0:00:24.8] WJ: No.

[0:00:27.4] DA: Wait.

[0:00:28.7] MN: Just off the gate, right off the gate, William’s out there to say no, don’t do it.

[0:00:34.1] DA: Right, right out of the gate, we’ve got a tiger up here.

[0:00:37.4] MN: Yeah, we have a tiger.

[0:00:39.9] DA: He’s no paper tiger, he’s the real deal.

[0:00:44.7] MN: Hold on, before we start introducing the items to run a pre-mortem or a pre-mortem in itself, can we define what is a pre-mortem? Am I even saying that right? That’s the question. I read an article online and saw, I’ve done, I’m sure everyone in this room may or may not have had a post-mortem before.

[0:01:07.1] WJ: Post-mortem is where you cut up a dead body, right? 

[0:01:10.3] MN: Yes.

[0:01:10.9] WJ: Pre-mortem would be cut up a live body.

[0:01:12.2] SC: That is correct.

[0:01:14.6] DA: It is kind of, it’s a very morbid like – 

[0:01:17.8] SC: Anti-mortem.

[0:01:19.5] DA: Metaphor.

[0:01:19.6] SC: It is, isn’t it? Yeah. Because it is – 

[0:01:22.9] WJ: Section?

[0:01:24.0] SC: Yes, wow.

[0:01:26.7] DA: No, poor little frog buddies. I’m having a flashback to high school bio.

[0:01:32.4] MN: Oh man.

[0:01:31.9] SC: As am I.

[0:01:33.8] MN: Shoutout to Carl, the frog. Yeah, post-mortem is after I guess, you’re epic or this feature that’s been out for some time and you discuss, you could run a post-mortem with five lines and try and try and identify the things that went well, what didn’t go well and looked to do, not to do it again.

[0:01:52.4] DA: Although, if it’s a mortem, then, that implies that something went very wrong and someone needs to be blamed.

[0:01:58.9] MN: Yeah, I mean, just don’t do that, don’t go – don’t make to the meeting like, “Okay, who is responsible for this and are we going to throw them in the ring of fire or four?

[0:02:10.4] DA: Yeah.

[0:02:11.4] WJ: Capital punishment.

[0:02:12.1] DA: It feels like ideally, ideally you're not doing capital punishment but does feel like there’s a risk of that because something has happened potentially that’s very bad. You need to figure out why it happened and how you can stop it from happening again.

[0:02:28.8] SC: Right, I guess part of the theory is that by, I guess, having the bravery to address these kinds of potential scary issues head on that that’s going to ultimately help us.

[0:02:42.3] DA: Right, you don’t have to blame anybody because it hasn’t happened yet.

[0:02:46.0] SC: Right, but you could imagine what blaming them would be like.

[0:02:51.4] MN: I think Bobby’s up to no good. I think Bobby’s going to sabotage something. Bobby, you need to watch out.

[0:02:59.4] DA: I feel like this is one of those social deception games like secret hitlist, which one among us will betray us?

[0:03:09.4] MN: I vote nay on everything. Being able to identify problems that may arise in the future is the purpose of our pre-mortem I guess. For a post-mortem, I think Dave, you mentioned before, you would run a post-mortem at like, something – I wouldn’t say catastrophic, that’s like wild but say, something broke or went down and something unexpected happened, you would have a post-mortem to talk about that particular thing and what we can do to remedy that and what was the situation, how do we fix this so it doesn’t happen again.

How do you do that with a pre-mortem, do you do that with – Do you do a pre-mortem with a particular feature or epic that you’re building or you do like, pre-mortem. Today, we’re going to talk about the pipelines, what could happen, what could go wrong and do a pre-mortem on that. How do you decide what to pre-mortem? Now, William, I think you may have had some experience in this, did you do a premortem for a feature specifically?

[0:04:13.3] WJ: I’ve done premortems for big launches which I mean, everybody knows, big launches are a bad idea, right? You kind of already know something is going to go wrong, it’s a pretty logical, easy target for a pre-mortem.

[0:04:26.4] DA: Right, feel, the risk, feels high.

[0:04:28.2] MN: I see. It’s like, during the release of this release of a large part of your application which isn’t Agile I would say, right? Because you want to release things as small as possible to get the feedback as fast as possible. You have three different things that you would need to identify in a pre-mortem and I’ll go over one of them or be able to go all three of them if you all are interested. First one you have to identify are tigers, which we’ve mentioned earlier. William being the tiger in this topic saying “No, it is trash.” A tiger is a clear –

[0:05:04.4] SC: A clear threat, William is the clear threat here.

[0:05:09.5] MN: Right, exactly.

[0:05:11.4] WJ: I’m just a paper tiger, you don’t need to worry about me.

[0:05:14.5] SC: I think it’s origami.

[0:05:15.1] MN: Yeah. A tiger is a clear threat that would hurt if we don’t do something about it, we need to do something about William. No William, you’re more than fine, stay on the call, don’t drop. A paper tiger is an ostensible threat that you are personally not worried about but others might be. I guess –

[0:05:32.9] WJ: Paper tiger is just a lack of creativity and animal naming, we already did tiger, come on, step up your game.

[0:05:38.8] SC: Yeah, what would you choose instead? Would it be a snake in the grass? What would it be?

[0:05:44.2] WJ: I think probably, you know tigers, it would be easier to swap out the tiger than the paper tiger. Just like a lot of scaring and maybe a bear?

[0:05:54.7] SC: A bear?

[0:05:56.4] DA: To the North American audience.

[0:05:58.0] MN: A black bear or it’s a ferocious animal, a paper animal I guess and the last one is – go ahead?

[0:06:08.4] DA: Or, it could be a brown bear, a black bear and an elephant. Yeah because grizzly bear or brown bears are like, very scary and they will mess you up if you encounter them, black bears – 

[0:06:23.9] SC: Docile.

[0:06:25.0] DA: Could be a threat but most of the time you don’t really need to worry about them, as long as they’re not learned the bad behaviors.

[0:06:33.6] SC: Right.

[0:06:33.8] WJ: Maybe teddy bear?

[0:06:34.6] SC: It almost feels like – Teddy bear, very good. It almost seems like the paper tiger is like an echo of the real fear or something like that, like an emulation of it, like a ghost of a real concern, that’s maybe what they’re getting at. It could be paper. 

[0:06:49.5] DA: Right, I guess if you have the right lighting, maybe it’s casting a shadow but someone else is looking out there. They’re all in the cave like Aristotle’s cave.

[0:06:59.8] SC: “Oh, I see a tiger so I need to – kind of hand signal against the fire light” yeah.

[0:07:06.1] DA: Right, yeah. You’re like, I know that that’s okay if we’re tiger but other people are like, “But that’s a big shadow, it’s scary.”

[0:07:13.1] MN: I know, I mean, you guys just used a bear example, I’m still terrified of any bear that I would encounter. I don’t expect to see bears in the Bronx, I don’t expect to see bears in Westchester County so if I encounter one, I will be terrified just so you know.

[0:07:27.4] SC: What about a Koala bear?

[0:07:29.3] DA: That bear is coming.

[0:07:30.9] MN: Drop bears?

[0:07:32.7] WJ: Drop bears.

[0:07:34.0] MN: Drop bears, I don’t know if those are terrifying. Any kind of bear. The last one of the three items is an elephant. Elephants are terrifying too but they’re extremely – I find them to be a docile creature as long as you don’t mess with them, right? Don’t bother elephant, elephant just be elephant, be big and large is the thing you’re concerned, the team is not talking about – like the elephant in the room, as the saying goes.

[0:08:02.0] DA: Yeah, I feel like this is like this – after the saying but maybe – but elephants, I guess, they’re a little dangerous but –

[0:08:10.3] WJ: Elephants are scary, get charged by an elephant, I’m telling you, it’s not.

[0:08:16.9] MN: Yes, they are, they’re huge, I mean, Dave was going to say like hippos are ferocious.

[0:08:22.9] WJ: Yeah, hippos are the worst, yeah.

[0:08:25.9] MN: What is the word? Yeah, a lot more humans die from hippos more than I can imagine and every time I hear that fact, I’m like “Wow” that’s a lot of humans who fall on the –

[0:08:38.3] DA: Hungry hippos?

[0:08:39.4] MN: Hungry hippos is a real thing bro, people have to be careful with hippos.

[0:08:45.2] SC: Perhaps our tigers are actually hippos.

[0:08:50.7] DA: I just didn’t know.

[0:08:53.3] WJ: Now that we’ve thoroughly derailed the entire conversation. What is a post-mortem?

[0:09:00.3] MN: The idea is that you grab these three – people are supposed to come over these groups of things, they are tigers they are paper tigers and the elephants and everyone kind of like a postmortem like I imagine you would get sticky notes with those three colors and you put them on the board for five minutes and then you group them together and then we – you talk about all the potential problems that may arise, then you need to talk about action items and wait to solve for those things.

[0:09:26.0] SC: If I were to play devil’s advocate here, I might ask a question like, doesn’t it seem like you could have an elephant that’s also a tiger and so on?

[0:09:35.9] MN: A tiger elephant? A telephant? It’s possible. 

[0:09:41.5] DA: I guess the distinction is that the elephant goes unnoticed or has a lower profile and the tiger is like, has stripes.

[0:09:49.7] SC: Tiger is clear.

[0:09:52.1] DA: It’s in your face.

[0:09:52.6] SC: Okay.

[0:09:55.4] DA: At least in the metaphor, it’s like a clear, probably thought like, maybe everyone’s worried about performance on the website where they launches. People often talk about that, it could be a tiger or paper tiger, depending on maybe you don’t have that many users that will hit, potentially hit this, maybe you don’t have to worry about performance right away.

[0:10:14.1] SC: I see. Yes.

[0:10:15.0] WJ: I was thinking it was like the elephant in the room is the thing everybody knows about but isn’t actually talking about whereas, the tiger is hiding in the bushes and is going to eat you. If you're in the pre-mortem and you want to draw somebody’s attention to something that you see is a danger but that no one else sees as a danger that will be a tiger. 

If it’s something that everybody kind of knows is always a problem but we just don’t talk about, the performance on the side is always bad and we’re launching a huge new set of features that’s going to make it even worse. We all kind of know this and we just don’t talk about it because it’s baseline. 

[0:10:50.2] SC: Sure. 

[0:10:51.9] MN: Yeah, I saw William, you have experience and you mentioned before in premortems. Did you find them helpful? Why or why not? 

[0:11:00.3] WJ: It could have been an email. 

[0:11:01.8] MN: It could have been an email, tell us about that. 

[0:11:05.0] WJ: I think these are structures, right? If you apply the structures well, they can be useful and if you apply them in situations that they are not appropriate for, then they can be a waste of time. I mean it’s a tool. I think sometimes people will find a hammer and then everything starts to look like a nail and meetings are expensive and people tend to put as much emphasis as I think is often warranted on demanding time from a very large group of people, especially if you are doing a really big launch and you have a really big team. 

You’re talking about, you know, 12 different people talking about something for an hour and also, one of the metrics for success is how much action is taken as a result. I think one strength of the post-mortem is that when something bad happens, everybody really wants to make sure that they understand what happened and that if there are easy things we could do to avoid that same problem in the future that we follow through and take those actions. 

Whereas when the threat is theoretical, it can be difficult to motivate people to actually take any real action. It’s like, “Okay, we had a meeting, we talked about a lot of things that could maybe go wrong but also, I have a job to do and a lot of other responsibilities and you know, maybe none of these things will come to pass. Also, I kind was already generally aware about most of the things that came up in the meeting and so, I have kind of already taken as much evasive action as I’m going to.” 

[0:12:37.8] MN: Do you think if you had to look back what would be – what would change a pre-mortem in your experience so that it wasn’t an email, that it couldn’t have been an email? Like it could have been a meeting, is there one thing that you would be like, “Oh I would definitely change the way that it’s run with paper tigers” or whatever? Do you have a thought on that or do you think 100% you know, “I’ll email you all my elephant out of here. I’m done.”

[0:13:07.0] DA: Yeah, I think one thing you could do is think about the structure of the meeting and if there is any pre-work that you can do to think about these problems as you’re working, as you’re going and not have to come to alignment about what those things are, if you already have this kind of list that’s ready to go, then you could probably have a very short and focused discussion about what they are rather than going through a highly structured one hour meeting where you’re doing ideation and sharing and blah-blah-blah. It could be good just to build into a regular drum beat of progress. 

[0:13:55.1] SC: Right and then I wonder if having that additional rhythm folded in will help to build that psychological safety among team members and across team members that Google told us is so important, right? I am sure you’ve heard about the Aristotle Project. 

[0:14:13.5] MN: Enlighten me. 

[0:14:15.6] DA: Yeah, we did an episode on psychological safety with – 

[0:14:19.6] MN: Many moons ago I believe. 

[0:14:21.9] SC: Yeah, you’ve probably talked about it and if someone hasn’t talked about it, they’ve probably heard about it but basically the idea is Google this research and they found that there are these core tenants that lead to successful development teams and I think number one is in fact psychological safety and the reason, I was just going to say the reason it was called the Aristotle Project too is this idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, which is pretty compelling. 

[0:14:50.0] DA: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense like if people are bringing up problems as they see them, which is like a value of Agile in general like kind of emerging the problems earlier and dealing with them before something goes wrong, then you can imagine that the team has more ownership over it rather than the individual. If there does have to be a post-mortem then you know, there is not a single person you can really throw under the bus. It’s the whole team, it is the whole team under the bus. Get under there. 

[0:15:24.1] SC: Yeah, well you know, perhaps it’s also like we’ve broken the ice on these issues. They’ve already been talked about therefore the path has been made for us to talk about them again as we see them as we’re building things. 

[0:15:36.0] DA: Yeah, totally. I do remember really enjoying talking about psychological safety. If you want to dig more into that, I check my tattoos, it is episode number 31. 

[0:15:47.0] MN: Bro, are you growing skin man? That’s so many episodes bro, how did you do that? 

[0:15:53.8] DA: Well, opening – 

[0:15:54.9] WJ: Very fine print.

[0:15:55.8] MN: You got to get very, very fine print. Very, very tiny tidy things. 

[0:16:00.6] DA: It’s getting smaller as it goes down. It is like a Star Wars crawl. 

[0:16:04.7] MN: The idea of having if a team has psychological safety, these meetings – well, I guess the question is how often do you run a pre-mortem, right? William mentioned before, he’s done it at the time of a major release and I’m curious, if you are not doing major releases as often, right? Because they’re major so chances are it’s going to be more time being passed in, he may not run these premortems as often to be able to gain the psychological safety and the benefits that of a pre-mortem has when you have the safety to do so. 

One suggest to have it often, more often than a major release I guess is a question that I have in mind because it seems like a great way to build psychological safety with your teammates to make sure that everyone feels comfortable calling out, problems that exists in the application, right? Because people will just be like, “Yo Mike, that’s not a problem bro. We can fix it. We’ll fix it, don’t worry about it.” 

[0:17:04.2] SC: As the elephant we don’t talk about the elephant. 

[0:17:06.9] MN: Yeah, exactly. “I don’t know, don’t worry about.” It’s always been like that, right? 

[0:17:11.1] SC: Oh no, no, no there’s no elephant there. You just look over here. 

[0:17:14.9] MN: You’re looking at the wrong place. 

[0:17:16.9] SC: Like stoicism, yeah you’re being like, “What you can’t see doesn’t exist” but yeah, I take your point Mike. I think wouldn’t it be interesting for instance if we have like a pre-tro instead of a retro at the beginning of every sprint? What if we put a pre-mortem?

[0:17:33.0] MN: A pre-tro? 

[0:17:34.0] DA: Yeah, I mean that’s totally a thing. I don’t know if we’ve done an episode on this specific but there’s an idea of a future-spective where – 

[0:17:40.4] SC: Oh yes so that’s – yeah. 

[0:17:41.8] DA: Where you’re looking ahead. 

[0:17:43.1] SC: Much better word than pre-tro, thank you.

[0:17:49.1] DA: Yeah, like what we talked about last time about the hero’s journey or the sailboat future-spective. 

[0:17:57.4] MN: Yes, so premortems are a thing that we all learned and dived into. I know William earlier mentioned, you know, everything could have been an email for pre-mortem as a – probably a con or a negative to a pre-mortem. Is there anything else we could think about right now that could affect the team negatively when we have such a meeting like this? 

[0:18:19.1] SC: Something that occurred to me, I was wondering if maybe having a ceremony like this, a ritual like this, talking about potential threats, could it maybe make us more afraid than we need to be? For instance, will we start seeing tigers in shadows? Will we start seeing beasts where there are none? What do you all think about that? 

[0:18:41.4] MN: I live with a super high anxiety so it will give me more anxiety as I’m working on it. 

[0:18:47.6] SC: It is going to feed right into it, right? It’s just going to perpetuate that culture of fear, could it? 

[0:18:57.0] DA: Yeah, I mean like there are a lot of anti-patterns I guess that could happen with retros and other tools like that too. I guess the specific problem that you’re talking about is imagining like that everything is a tiger when it’s really more of a paper tiger like kind of like the performance thing. It’s like, “Oh, we definitely need to worry about performance” and then I guess like, you do have to close the lips somehow and see which of your fears were valid and call yourself out at the end. 

[0:19:31.8] SC: Yeah, absolutely and then maybe hopefully like flip it a little bit too, so that you’ve talked about all these potential risks and then you also kind of like maybe have to do a rah-rah-rah again after that, right? Because if I went just were going to do try to develop about talking after talking about all of the tigers and the hippos and the bears, oh my, then I think I might feel rather inhibited to really write, to really create if I was in that mindset, so it might need an additional shift perhaps. 

[0:20:06.8] DA: What could go right, right? 

[0:20:08.3] SC: What could go right? Let’s envision this going very well. 

[0:20:12.2] DA: Yeah, what are the wonderful things we’ll find in this journey?

[0:20:15.5] SC: Yes. 

[0:20:15.8] MN: Yeah, as William pointed out earlier, having the meeting and it could have been an email, I would also probably need William to call me down and say, “Not everything is a tiger Mike, you need to chill. It’s a paper tiger out here. That’s nothing to worry about,” because I would definitely feed all the tigers in all of these meetings for sure and we’ll definitely need help to be talked down in a lot of these issues that may come up in a pre-mortem. 

I don’t know William, I think I might be excited if I ever get a chance to run a pre-mortem. I’ll have to let you know whether it could have been an email. I mean, I imagine that it might be but meetings are – I enjoy them from time to time especially a new one like this. Who knows?

[0:20:56.0] DA: Fickle beast. 

[0:20:56.9] MN: Yeah. 


[0:20:57.4] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five star review and help developers like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode, subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


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