Product Management

4 min read

13 Questions to Ask in a Product Pre-Mortem

Almost every decision your company makes is based on assumptions. You assume there is demand. You assume how people will use your product. You assume your pricing lines up with the perceived value of your solution.Lots of those assumptions are based on facts, of course, gleaned from surveys, customer interviews, competitive intelligence, and market research. But at the end of the day, every product decision is your company making a bet and, as the product manager, you’re ultimately the one placing it.Many bets don’t pay off as expected; some are total failures or mild successes compared to what could have been when the project was first kicked off. The best practice of conducting a “postmortem” analyzes and rehashes what took place during a release cycle, letting product teams and executives apply those learnings going forward, with the expectation that next time things will go better, faster and smoother since you’re building on that experience.But some have taken the further step of conducting a product “premortem” analysis. The technique was pioneered by Gary Klein of Applied Research Associates and is based on the principle that it’s a beneficial exercise to predict all of the realistic reasons a project might fail BEFORE you actually start working on it.

Premortem Analysis: The Product Failure Thought Experiment

“A typical premortem begins after the team has been briefed on the plan. The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly. Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure—especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic,” Klein wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

The team then takes turns reading these reasons aloud until each one is presented. The revelations are then used to try and shore up potential problems with the project ahead of time. Not only does this surface issue early on, it also gets people out of the “ship or bust” mindset and makes team members feel valued for their insights.The goal of this exercise isn’t to be morbid or pessimistic, it is instead intended to make sure everyone involved is feeling confident about the choices and plans they’ve made and will remain vigilant to spot the warning signs of potential problems throughout the entire development, release and launch process.

So as you prepare for your next big launch or product, here are 13 questions you should be asking yourself at conception so you can avoid contemplating them at the autopsy.

13 Pre-Mortem Questions

1) What if we ship late?

Figure out if the success of your product is tied to hitting a certain deadline. If so, how confident are you that you’ll hit that date with time to spare? Are you being truthful and realistic in your estimates? What are the repercussions of slipping?

2) Are we counting on a specific customer or set of customers?

If you’re selling into a specific industry, there may be a limited number of potential buyers or subscribers - there are only so many cruise lines and professional sports leagues, for example. How confident are you that they’ll buy in? If you have a flagship customer in mind but no signed contract in hand, how sure are that your sales team has the deal locked up?

3) What if the technology doesn’t work?

Some products rely on a technological advancement or breakthrough to get to market, while some others are based on supporting technologies from third parties. What happens if it doesn’t work as expected? Are there workarounds or alternatives?

4) What if Team Member X hits the lottery?

Slightly more pleasant than “getting hit by a bus,” but it’s the same theme. Are you overly reliant on a specific staff member to achieve success? What happens if they’re no longer available to work on this?

5) What if a supplier goes away?

How vulnerable is your supply chain and how nimble is your operation if it needs to switch things up? While this is more traditionally thought of as a “hardware” issue, the same principles apply to any vendors you rely on, from hosting providers to outsourced specialists.

6) What if we’re too expensive?

Pricing is one part art, one part science and one part gut instinct. What happens if you’re wrong and sticker shock deters customer adoption? Can you hold out for someone to pay? Can your cost structure withstand a quickie price cut? How are you testing the validity of your pricing assumptions?

7) What happens if unforeseen competition appears?

Believe it or not, you might not be the only company that’s come up with this brilliant idea, and even if you’re first to market it may not stop a copycat from quickly introducing an alternative that’s cheaper, better or just different. If your solution able to stand out from the competition or was your business case predicated on being the only game in town?

8) How would we handle a cost of goods increase?

While many products and services are seemingly in a race to the bottom, market conditions can cause unexpected price increases for certain items. Could a change in your cost structure decimate your margins or make that “freemium” offering unsustainable? Do you have deep enough pockets to take a loss or confidence you could raise prices and still gain traction?

9) Are we basing expected demand on a trend or a fad?

One glance at the discount bin a toy store or the clearance section of a fashion outlet should be a stark reminder that tastes can change quickly. How sure are you that your product doesn’t just meet the needs of a fickle few for a short time? If you’re providing a value-added service to other products how confident are you that they’ll continue to be popular with your target customers?

10) Can we scale faster than planned?

Sometimes success itself can lead to a product’s downfall, and not everyone can survive the “Fail Whale” of a 404 error. If your demand spikes sooner than expected, can you handle it? Will you need to hire more staff quickly or augment your storage capacity and processing power?

11) What if the market tanks?

Even if your company isn’t trading on the stock exchange, macroeconomic events, natural disasters and political unrest can impact everyone. When things get dicey, people cut back on spending. Would your product make the cut or be deemed expendable? Would your customers purchase fewer seat licenses or instances? Do you rely on people having disposable income and splurging?

12) What if it destroys customer data or causes other types of damage?

Regardless of whether your product is hosting someone’s personal photos or their mission critical financial data, customers are trusting you with something valuable. So what happens when your cloud randomly dissipates or you accidentally introduce a virus?

13) What if there *is* such a thing as “Bad PR”?

It could be a poorly received product name, a terribly executed advertising campaign or a technical snafu, but either way your company could be making headlines for all the wrong reasons. How solid is your reputation and can it withstand a bit of tarnish?None of these scenarios are fun to imagine, but some might be far more likely to happen than scoring a few hundred upvotes on Product Hunt or landing an enterprise deal with an auto manufacturer.


Heather McCloskey