Product Field Guide

The Premortem

Reflect on failure before it happens

The Premortem

Funerals occur postmortem—after death—and serve to reconnect family and friends. But they’re tragic in their timing; we wait for death to bring us together. Why not coalesce the living, manage affairs, and make peace before we pass?

Like funerals, project retrospectives (postmortems) are essential for a growth-minded team, but they come too late in the project lifecycle. Instead, product managers can host a premortem.

Philosophically, product launches are more like birth than death. Internal teams are pregnant with a product, feeding it time and resources until they birth it into production. Within this metaphor, a project prenatal might seem more fitting, but therein lies the problem: birth mostly has positive connotations. While optimism is essential to build anything, excessive optimism around a launch will guarantee failure.

Premortems are cross-functional sessions that encourage teams to anticipate problems arising after a release. Product managers invite team members to imagine how a product can fail and work backward to mitigate those issues. Most importantly, a premortem creates a shared vocabulary around failure points.

The essence of a premortem involves three animals:

  1. Tigers
  2. Paper Tigers
  3. Elephants

Let’s explore each.


Tigers are deadly to the product, potentially disastrous issues leading to inevitable failure. Think of broken capabilities—incompatible browser issues, login errors, corrupted data, significant latency spikes, and uptime challenges. These are true positives. Stakeholders will likely agree on these issues and won’t require much discussion in the premortem session.

Paper Tigers

Paper tigers seem deadly to the product, but they likely aren’t. Think of things with capability gaps that don’t matter for the use case, like mobile responsiveness for a desktop or missing SEO keywords for an internal tool. These are false positives. Some stakeholders will see these as tigers, so thoughtful and objective discussion is required to decide whether an issue is real or “paper.”


The metaphorical “elephants in the room” are issues that should be concerning, but nobody is speaking about them. Think about the secondary aspects of a product—logging, monitoring, alerting, intentional or unintentional platform abuse, security vulnerabilities, and bias factors. These issues are false negatives, items we’d surely miss without the proactive reflection of a premortem. Paranoia is our friend for identifying such elephants. Cross-functional representation is crucial for covering all dimensions of a product launch.

Hosting a Premortem

Schedule a one-hour block a few weeks before launch. Invite a diverse group, ideally no fewer than six and no more than ten, and include reps from functions like engineering, analytics, customer support, sales, design, marketing, or operations.

Structure the session as follows:

  1. Initiate for 5 minutes. Quickly visualize the state of the product one month after launch. Express that the product (or feature or version bump or policy) is failing miserably.
  2. Brainstorm for 10 minutes. Instruct the team to imagine issues and list as many as they can. Use a shared whiteboard or collaborative document to collate all potential problems in one place. As they write on digital sticky notes or bullet points, move similar items near each other.
  3. Vote for 10 minutes. Finish clumping similar items and ask the team to quietly cast three “votes” on the most severe threats.
  4. Discuss for 30 minutes. Introduce the concept of tigers, paper tigers, and elephants. Then, review the top-voted threats. Encourage participants to discuss and assign each to an animal. Most threats debated will be tigers or paper tigers, so ask the group if any less-voted issues could be elephants.
  5. Assign for 5 minutes. Decide on the top five threats. List each as an action item, assign owners, and set target dates to address each.

Memento mori. Premortems express a stoic overtone, a willingness to think about failure today so you can enjoy a fruitful launch tomorrow.

This article was last updated on 04 Mar 2024.

← More Concepts

© 2024 Product Field Guide