Premortems: Save Your Sprint (Before It’s Too Late)

Alex Vernik
Alex Vernik
Engineering Ops Specialist
Posted on
Feb 11, 2021
Updated on
May 23, 2022
Table of Content

You know what they say - prevention is better than the cure. 

That goes for your sprints (and sprint retrospectives) too. 

The thing is, as anyone who’s been in a post-mortem retro before will tell you, it's very rare that you don't see these problems coming. It's not that you have any extra-sensory abilities; it's that most of these issues can be anticipated (and even fixed!) before you begin a sprint.

That’s why premortems are the perfect way to begin a sprint: you can literally save your sprint for potential disaster, and have a much better, quicker and pain-free retro as a result!  

What is a Premortem? 

Rather than look back at the sprint after the fact and ask ‘what exactly happened there?’, a premortem allows you to anticipate the issues and challenges so they might not even happen in the first place. 

While post-mortems/retros deal with understanding issues once they’ve already occurred, a constructive and open premortem can make your sprint retrospectives far more productive, quicker, and even change the nature of your retro discussion entirely. 

How to Do a Premortem in 3 Easy, Painless Steps 

Although it sounds like you're adding yet another meeting to the ever-growing list, you should know that a premortem done right can save you hours of retro time after. 

There are several ‘rules’ you need to know when you’re going into your first premortem: 

  • Make the time. If you don't want to or can't commit then you should think about how much time you'd need to dedicate to cleaning up issues post-mortem (and that might even change your mind!)
  • All stakeholders should be involved. Ever had a colleague looking to put the blame on someone else because they weren't ‘aware’ on ‘in the meeting’? With a premortem, you avoid any potential scapegoating and other unpleasantness! 
  • Take notes. Premortems can be very fast-paced and go in any number of directions. One person should be recording solutions, action items, problems and anything else that crops up, in order to keep everyone accountable and focused. 

Step one: List every issue that could crop up in a sprint

It doesn't matter how wildly over the top or seemingly insignificant – this is like your retro’s preventative therapy. List everything and anything at can and will go wrong – from your experience, from your past retros, even from something you feel might sound silly, or as if it could ever happen. Some ideas could be - 

  • What if a dev teammate falls ill, and you're dependent on their code?
  • What if there are technical difficulties? 
  • What if someone breaks their hand and can't code? 

And so on. You want to make an entire list of everything possible event or occurrence that could derail your sprint, 

Step two: Pick the top 5-10 issues

Now you've allowed all hell to break loose on paper, it's time to sort through the madness and chase the most likely issues you'll encounter. 

Start with 5-10 of them. Here are a few quick tips you can use to sort the most important ones: 

  • Focus on the biggies. Which of these issues are critical to your sprint, and will seriously impact (and possibly derail) the entire thing? You should be aiming for the big issues that could even cause several other minor issues you've listed. 
  • Choose things that are likely to happen. Even though it was fun brainstorming them, think about the issues that could actually happen - especially those ‘secret’ worries that no one really wanted to discuss (such as everyone gets ill with COVID-19 all at the same time), that could lead to finger pointing later
  • Ignore issues you can't control. Every sprint has issues, but some you won't be able to control - and that means you've narrowed down some of your list into the issues you can and will have control over! 

Step 3: Create solutions to the issues

It's time to find solutions! 

Now you have a better idea of realistic issues that could crop up, you need to define proactive solutions – with action items for relevant stakeholders – as well as a backup plan. 

See? That wasn't so painful, was it? 

GoRetro Improves Your Premortem 

Wanna run great premortems (as well as postmortems)? GoRetro can help you attend either in a heartbeat and with ease thanks to its comprehensive and colorful retrospective tool: unlimited boards, team members, and use...for Free. Let's GoRetro.


About the author

Alex Vernik
Engineering Ops Specialist

Engineering leader, passionate about coding products and value creation. Vast experience with managing R&D teams at various scales. Embracing innovation and transformation for constant improvement.

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