An obituary was written when a queen was interned

In keeping with a slightly morbid bend in storytelling techniques, we add to the premortem technique the idea of a business (or project) obituary.  An obituary is a specialized form of a news story that communicates the key points in the life or a person, organization, event or project. During my college years, I spent time in college radio stations on air both playing music and doing the news (where do you think the podcasting came from? Check out the Software Process and Measurement Cast).  In the newsroom we largely knew how to put together an obituary.  We kept a few critical local celebrities written and ready just in case (in the business, this is called a morgue).  Just like any story an obituary is comprised by a set of attributes.  A typical (simplified) set of components found in obituaries (Chapter 51 from the News Manual – Obituaries) includes:

  Formula B

  1. Name, identity, time of death, cause of death and place of death.
  2. Where the person came from and age.
  3. Most newsworthy achievements.
  4. The rest of their life and achievements, in chronological order.
  5. Funeral arrangements.
  6. Survivors.

Business obituaries, while fiction, follow many of the same conventions.  The process for writing a project obituary is different than the one we used back in WLSU’s newsroom.  A team-oriented process to write a project obituary includes the following steps:

  1.     Assemble the project team and break them into pairs.
  2.     Ask each pair identify two large concerns the could lead to project failure.  If with the pairs have problems identifying large risks ask “what keeps them up at night.”
  3.     Have each team develop an obituary based on the News Manual outline using the risk they identified as the shock that killed the project.  Timebox this step to 30 minutes.
  4.     Ask each team to develop a headline for their obituary.  Generating a headline is often useful to help the team distil the central message.
  5.     Have each team debrief in a round robin format.  As each team debriefs have the rest of the teams listen to how writers perceived the impact of the risk. Timebox this task to 30 minutes.
  6.     When done debriefing ask the whole team how they would avoid the risks and the impacts foreseen in the obituaries (for risk aficionados, this step is about developing a risk mitigation plan).

The story in the obituary is useful for identifying risks and providing information needed for risk mitigation.  At the same the story can help the team to identify the true nature of the project, the attributes that the team perceives will make it special.

An alternate approach is to ask the team to write the obituary as if the project was a wild success. This approach takes a positive rather than a negative path and might be useful in organizations that do not want to discuss possible failure.

Most project personnel, regardless of whether they are software developers, testers, business subject matter experts or business analysts, are inherently optimistic.  The idea of a developing an obituary helps get people out of their comfort zone so they are free to think about what could go wrong and what the consequences could be if they do not address not dealt with.  

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