The Definition of Done: What Product Managers Need to Know
Are we there yet? This is a difficult question to answer when no one agrees on where exactly “there” is. In an Agile world...
The pilot episode of the now-cancelled TV series Low Winter Sun opens with a scene in which two cops have just done something very bad. (Don’t worry. No spoilers here.) We watch as the men methodically cover their tracks. Then, when it seems they’ve dealt with every possible risk, one cop turns to the other and says: “Okay, what are we not thinking of that could hurt us?”
Taking the time to think through that question—in that moment, rather than later, when other cops come breaking down their door—is what we in the product management world might call a pre-mortem. And it’s an ingenious strategy.
In the book The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday describes the following scene:
A CEO calls her staff into the conference room on the eve of the launch of a major new initiative. They file in and take their seats around the table. She calls the meeting to attention and begins: “I have bad news. The project has failed spectacularly. Tell me what went wrong?”
If you’re wondering how the project could have failed the night before its launch, so were all of the other attendees in that meeting.
But as Holiday explains, that’s the whole point. It hadn’t failed yet. And in that moment—before any real issues came up—the CEO was asking her team to game out any possible way that things could go wrong.
Or, as that corrupt cop asked his partner, “What are we not thinking of that could hurt us?”
In a pre-mortem, you think up as many realistic negative outcomes as you can, and then think through how best to react to them. (Realistic is key here: Worrying about an asteroid crashing into Earth is probably not worth the time.)
Before every product launch, before every important initiative you and your team undertake, we think you should conduct a pre-mortem. Here’s why.
As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.”
Let’s say you roll out a new product, or a major update to an existing product, and something goes wrong. Your servers crash and your customers can’t access your app. Something goes haywire in your shipping department and every eager buyer’s order is delayed. A well-respected industry blogger writes some scathing posts and tweets about your new offering. It doesn’t really matter what the details are; pick your team’s most realistic nightmare.
As Tyson pointed out so well, when you actually take that punch to the nose, you’re not going to be doing your clearest thinking. In fact, you might be too stunned and terrified to react at all. So at that point—once the bad thing has happened—it will be too late to prepare your most effective response.
This is why a pre-mortem is such an effective strategy for countering (or at least preparing for) problems. You can game out all sorts of negative outcomes before they actually happen, while the stakes are low and everyone is able to think clearly.
The 2018 documentary, “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie,” follows what Mattel’s Barbie team codenamed “Project Dawn,” which was the 2016 unveiling of a new line of Barbie dolls with different body shapes and sizes. The team knew this was going to be a culturally significant event—radically changing the image of the world’s bestselling iconic doll. But they also realized they had no way of knowing in advance whether the world would react favorably or not.
As one of the public relations managers for the Barbie brand pointed out, this was a launch that needed a crisis plan.
So the team brought in a crisis management firm, which walked Team Barbie through the things they might not be thinking of that could hurt them. The crisis consultants prepared mockups of negative magazine stories attacking the new Barbie dolls. They showed angry tweets from parents. They showed exaggerated images mercilessly making fun of the new dolls’ looks.
Then the team gathered together and talked through the best plans of attack for dealing with these potential PR disasters.
They didn’t all agree immediately on the right courses of action. But by gaming this all out in advance of the launch—in a pre-mortem—the Barbie designers, PR professionals, and Mattel execs were able to get on the same page and create a unified plan for handling these problems if they did occur.
Finally, the pre-mortem exercise is valuable because it might help you catch and correct a potential threat before it actually happens.
You and your team are going to be enthusiastic about your product launch, after all, and the last thing anyone wants to do on the eve of that launch is to sit around trying to come up with ways your big moment might fail.
In fact, it’s often this very enthusiasm—which served you so well throughout your product’s development, and kept everyone motivated and eager to bring their A-games—that might have also created a blind spot that now won’t let you see any potential problems.
But when you give yourself and your team permission to step into pre-mortem mode—blinders off, enthusiasm shelved—you might be giving yourselves one last chance to spot a problem so you can deal with it before it’s ever able to hurt you.
Do you agree? Are pre-mortem reviews a good idea? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.