Identify the risks before you start with a premortem.

Storytelling generates the big picture to guide a project or to help people frame their thoughts. A story can provide a deeper and more nuanced connection with information than most lists of PowerPoint bullets or a structured requirements documents. Storytelling can be used as a risk management tool.  Premortems are a useful tool for helping project teams anticipate risks.  Premortems were described in the Harvard Business Review, September 2007 by Gary Klein.  The basic premortem approach can be can be customized with storytelling to increase the power of the technique.

The basic premortem technique is as follows:

Step 1 – Prepare by gathering the project.

Step 2 – Have the team assume the project has utterly failed and then ask the question what caused the failure.

Step 3 – Ask each person to quietly write down all of the reasons they think the failure occurred in three minutes.

Step 4 – Using a round robin approach have each person share one item on their list at a time with a facilitator recording the reasons on a whiteboard or flipchart.  Continue until all items are shared and recorded.

**The first four steps help defeat groupthink.

Step 5 – Identify the top 3 -5 items on the list and create user stories identifying the risks.  These high priority risks will be added to the backlog and revisited during grooming.  Common issues should be added to the team’s definition of done.

Step 6 – Periodically review the overall list with the team to determine whether any of the risks not added in step 5 have become more urgent. 

A more powerful twist to the standard process replaces steps 2 – 4 with a storytelling technique.

  • Break the team into pairs.
  • Provide the participants with an overview of the storytelling process, storytelling formats and the goal of the session.
  • Provide the participants with the premise that the project has failed and ask them to tell the story of how that point was reached.
  • Use probing questions to help the teams progress in generating the story. The sub-teams should be cross-functional. Time box this portion of the session to 15 minutes.
  • Have each team debrief the group with their stories.
  • Have the full team identify the issues that shaped the stories, these are potential risks.  The most critical risks should be added to the backlog (or if common to the definition of done).

When using the premortem storytelling technique there are a few important rules (many of these are useful for all types of storytelling sessions).

  1. Minimize interruptions, close laptops and have people put their phones away (consider collecting people’s phones).
  2. Set aside approximately two hours for generating the stories and to discuss the results.
  3. The whole project team and important stakeholders should be present or you will risk blind spots.
  4. If some members are not present video conferencing is important to create personal connections.
  5. A facilitator is important to making the process effective.  The facilitator should not be a critical team member or stakeholder. 
  6. The facilitator must ensure that the stories from the session are captured and the top 3 – 5 (more or less based on team’s discretion) are added to the product backlog. 

The premortem is an excellent tool to increase the team’s involvement and understanding of the understanding of risks.  Adding storytelling to the technique increases the richness of the experience over common brainstorming and listing techniques.  The results of a storytelling premortem will not only identify risks but provide the context of how the team members think the risks will emerge and turn into issues.