Startups: How to Do a Pre-Mortem (and Prevent a Post-Mortem)

Doctors conduct postmortems to figure why people died. They do this to solve a crime, prevent the death of others, and satisfy curiosity. However, once somebody dies, it’s too late to help him.

Entrepreneurs and their investors also often analyze why a product, service, or company died—especially if it’s someone else’s company. And, as in the case of dead people, a postmortem is too late to do much good for a defunct product, service, or company. Enter the concept of premortems, coined by Gary Klein, chief scientist of Klein Associates, and author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.

His idea is to get your team together and pretend that your product has failed. That’s right: failed, cratered, imploded, or “went Aloha Oe,” as we say in Hawaii. You ask the team to come up with all the reasons why the failure occurred. Then each member has to state one reason until every reason is on a list. The next step is to figure out ways to prevent every reason from occurring.

You can’t ask the team to report the issues and challenges because regular meetings are governed by mind games and unwritten rules—for example, not embarrassing your friends, not looking like a poor team player by criticizing others, and not making enemies. You can’t tell me that everyone is completely open and honest in these gatherings.

By contrast, people are not laying blame on one another and on other groups in a premortem (a properly conducted one, anyway). Everyone is compiling a list of all the hypothetical factors that may come into play. And “all” means “all,” because it would be shame if someone had thought of an issue but then dismissed it as not important enough to mention.

This post is a tiny part of Guy Kawasaki’s latest book, The Art of the Start 2.0. Read it and reap…

By |2015-08-07T07:51:53+00:00May 20th, 2015|Categories: Books, Entrepreneurship|Tags: , |19 Comments

About the Author:

Guy Kawasaki is the chief evangelist of Canva, an online graphic design tool. Formerly, he was an advisor to the Motorola business unit of Google and chief evangelist of Apple. He is also the author of The Art of Social Media, The Art of the Start, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, Enchantment, and nine other books. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.


  1. Russell Scott Day May 20, 2015 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    I don’t remember this part of the book. Have you done this for Canva, and how has it turned out. I have used Canva for the construction of about 10 posters, avoiding any charge because I have a large photo file stretching back 40, 50 years thanks to negative digitization tech. I failed in NYC due to the lack of capitalization, and diversification in the same industry didn’t save me. The lack of an account from the get go was an additional failure and a hard lesson was learned.

    • bparena May 31, 2015 at 9:51 pm - Reply


  2. Russell Scott Day May 20, 2015 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    Accountant, not account, to be clear, you must have an accountant who guides all decisions for the short and long term.

  3. Sneha May 23, 2015 at 11:47 pm - Reply

    Hey.. I think,The lack of an account from the get go was an additional failure and a hard lesson was learned..:)

  4. K.T May 25, 2015 at 4:54 am - Reply

    I have personally seen few startup trying and doing hard to do best as they could but some how (due to several factors) they failed. But as Mr. Kawasaki pointed “Post-mortem” is out most critical which has the potential to turn things around for an entrepreneur.

  5. srj May 28, 2015 at 10:29 pm - Reply

    Nice Tips. Thanks for providing valuable information.

  6. Ashfaq Ahmed May 29, 2015 at 7:44 am - Reply

    Basically you mean is “Prevention is better than cure” . Whatever it might be but its really refreshing to read it in different style.. thanks.

  7. Jordan May 29, 2015 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Considering how big the “startup” movement has gotten, I’d say this is an incredibly important post. You definitely need to figure out where you stand. Thanks for sharing this!

  8. Kim Matheson May 31, 2015 at 7:10 pm - Reply

    Hey Guy interesting concept using pre-mortem. Good analogy. Do you think in business there is sometimes too many chiefs and not enough indians? I think when things go pear shape, there has to be accountability. It will be at this point people will duck and weave to get away from it. Cheers Kim 🙂

  9. jing Yan June 28, 2015 at 11:42 am - Reply

    This book is the best business book i have ever read, not one of … very practical and all steps in detail. anyone who is thinking of a startup should read it several times before you jump in.

  10. Amit Shahani July 5, 2015 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    Your concept is very informative, it’s really interesting. I try to read this kind of book and this kind of book is really informative.
    Thank you to give us this useful concept

  11. Mandar August 7, 2015 at 4:53 am - Reply

    Nice insights, Guy.

  12. Jason Baudendistel August 12, 2015 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    This is brilliant why not be prepared to avoid failure by having a clear plan.

  13. Bobby Williams September 20, 2015 at 4:53 am - Reply

    A clear plan will also aid a business when a slight direction change is in order. Being prepared for course correction is as important as course maintenance.

  14. Akshay Joshi November 18, 2015 at 9:34 am - Reply

    That book by Gary looks cool and I’ve ordered it right away. Thanks for sharing such a great post Guy. Loved it.

  15. Dr. Larisa Varenikova December 12, 2015 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    Dear Guy, thank you for providing valuable information! Love to read you, please write more! Warm regards from Ukraine 🙂

  16. Ana M. Martin March 26, 2016 at 6:59 am - Reply

    Hi Guy Kawasaki!

    I’m one of your subscribers for many years!

    I love Your Posts.!

    I’ve created a platform to publish and share decision trees (

    Initially I’m not sharing the beta version publicly, but I would love that you test it:

    As the best explanation is an image, I’ve created a decision tree based on one of your advice here:

    When I saw that Post months ago, I knew it would be great to create a decision tree on that.

    If you don’t mind, I’ll create some more based on your advice, always giving you credit for that.

    Thanks for your useful Post!!

  17. Russell Bowyer July 4, 2017 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    I love this idea , whereby your are building in prospective hindsight into your business plan. This is a fab article, thank you. It’s got me thinking in a slightly different way about business already.

  18. Suja November 2, 2017 at 8:14 am - Reply

    Cool idea: a pre-mortem done well should help entrepreneurs avoid failure and perhaps a post-mortem

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