Before you launch: Imagine your product has failed. Conduct a pre-mortem.

Improve your odds of a successful new product launch with a pre-mortem review.

Improve your odds of a successful new product launch with a pre-mortem review.

I’m all for positive thinking, but not for blind spots.

“What could possibly go wrong?” is certainly a question that merits asking during any product or project’s development. However, a managerial technique known as the pre-mortem takes the process a critical step farther.

Pre-mortem example:

“We haven’t launched this product yet. But let’s imagine that it’s a year after the scheduled launch – and the product has failed. Okay, everybody, what went wrong?”

To give your team the opportunity to answer this question as thoroughly, as thoughtfully, and in as many ways as it merits, you’ll want to follow a process that encourages prospective hindsight, a method of thinking as if something had already happened.

First of all, set aside some time. Sure, you are busy developing the product. Make no mistake (yes, that’s a play on words) you are NOT too busy to perform a pre-mortem, which is far less painful and expensive than the potential post-mortem you will perform when and if the product fails. Start with a two-hour meeting. Select a facilitator.

Second, have everyone in the room begin by independently writing down all the possible reasons for the product’s failure.

Have each participant read one reason from his or her list, and repeat the process until all potential reasons for failure have been vocalized. The facilitator writes down every reason.

Third, discuss.

And, finally, plan and make changes to accommodate what you’ve learned through exercising prospective hindsight. This will require additional team meetings. Again, it’s time well-spent.

The research on pre-mortem effectiveness:

Harvard Business Review reported that “Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.” Using prospective hindsight allows team members to think out some of the lurking problems that haven’t been brought into the light of day in ordinary planning meetings. It slows the rush toward completion to allow more balanced perceptions to arise.

“Why did our product and its launch fail?”

A sample pre-mortem

We failed to market aggressively and one of our competitors then seized the market advantage as if we hadn’t been first.

We didn’t ask the market if it was interested in this product – and no one was.

We didn’t make sure the technology worked seamlessly. Early fails damaged our image.

 Production was too expensive, and we tried to charge more than the market would bear.

A recession killed demand for “extras” and our product wasn’t a must-have.

Consumers slammed it in reviews.

Our CEO cut the budget just as we launched and we didn’t get to trade shows.

We didn’t train the sales team to sell this complex offering, so they kept selling the old stuff instead.


Michelle van Schouwen is president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC, a B2B marketing company based in Longmeadow, MA. The company is known for vSALaunch™, its proprietary, modular and scalable system for B2B marketing launches, as well as its expertise in integrated marketing for B2B. Contact Michelle at


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