Strategy

How We De-risk the Planning Process with Premortems

by Sara Keyes, Reese Cain, and Katie Cox

Every project comes with risk—timeline hiccups, client satisfaction, unforeseen hurdles. While no project can be completely free of potential challenges, we’ve built processes to mitigate risks. We tailor plans of action to help us prevent pitfalls from happening, course correct as we go, and reflect on the outcomes to keep growing for the next project. 

Planning with a Side of Reverse Engineering

Before jumping right in, the first step we take when kicking off a new project is having a premortem. It’s an open discussion among the folks on our team—and sometimes our clients as well. We analyze a scope of work and brainstorm anything and everything that could take us off track. What might cause the timeline to shift? What if the client doesn’t love our suggestions? Nothing is off the table for consideration. 

Once we have those potential pitfalls written down, we ideate solutions. Maybe we need to get more clarity on the client’s goals. Maybe we need to schedule a couple extra check-ins to make sure we stay in lock-step the whole way. 

Those thoughts get distilled down into action items and documented. We capture everything in a Miro board, which ends up looking something like this:

Tracking Milestones

Equipped with our finished premortem, we’re ready to get into the work. To create effective milestones, we break down the project into manageable phases, identify key deliverables, and allocate resources accordingly. This helps the team stay organized and proactively address challenges, and it reminds us to celebrate when we’ve reached significant points in the timeline. Well-defined milestone management provides a structured framework for attaining goals and a solid foundation for project success. 

As we move through each phase and complete deliverables, the plan of action we made during the premortem comes into play. If any problems arise, we know how to tackle them as a team. We track our progress, then bring any and all insights to our next milestone check-in to make sure we’re aligned. These check-ins typically happen after discovery, strategy, creative concepting, production, and execution—but they vary based on the unique project at hand. 

One way we stay on the same page is by using a project scorecard. It’s a digital form that collects data at the end of each milestone to ensure that we’re in sync and help us keep tabs on our project’s health. This also helps with communication of any challenges at the milestone level, rather than letting something slip until the end of the project.

Reflecting and Growing

Plus/deltas are another tool in our belt when it comes to de-risking active or future work. These are roundtable discussions to talk about the bright spots as well as opportunities and the things we’ll change as we move forward. They can happen at any point that makes sense in the project, whether that’s after each milestone or at the very end of the work. 

The purpose of this meeting is to reflect on the activities, deliverables, process, and results, then gather learnings from everyone on the team. We capture what went well, any holdups, improvements to be made, and action items for the future. One of the key parts of this process is sharing the information with the rest of the agency. Right after the meeting wraps, the Project Manager creates a recap and sends it out in an agency-wide Slack channel. This creates efficiencies across teams, helping others avoid kicking the same rocks.

Something we like to emphasize in this step is making sure to give equal weight to the positives as well as the learnings. It’s important to balance identifying where we need to grow with staying encouraged about the work we accomplished. 

Plus/deltas are a reflection, but they’re not the end. This process is less of a straight line with specific beginning and end points and more of a loop. We take the knowledge gathered during a plus/delta and use it to inform our approach in our next premortem. It’s not designed to be a one-and-done deal—it’s a continuous adjustment and growth cycle. 

Why We Stick to It

Intentionally planning with obstacles in mind and reflecting on the ups and downs helps us lower risk when it comes to our planning process. While we can never remove all potential obstacles, we’ve found that these steps make any issues that do arise much more manageable—things that could’ve been a roadblock are reduced to a bump in the road (one that we breeze past). It’s our tried and true way to work effectively as a team and continue to grow with every project. 

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