Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

“Event is over and it was a failure. What happened?” — Pre-mortem can help you avoid pitfalls

In modern day and age, many organizations are adopting retrospectives (a session where you look back and talk about what went well, what went wrong and how we can improve) and post-mortems (how did the project go and where did we go wrong) as part of their day-to-day work.

If you haven’t looked into them, I highly suggest you do so. I think especially regular retrospectives can help you build better team work, better project work and improve the conditions around you.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

However, in this post I want to bring up something I see much less used but I think brings often even more value. Pre-mortems are like post-mortems but done before the event. You actively take time to think about possible pitfalls and shortcomings of your event and can build your event in a way that avoids them — before the event even takes place.

Why pre-mortems?

The motivation for pre-mortems is a no-brainer in my mind. Imagine the cost (not only direct monetary cost but also reputation, amount of stress and the work you have to do to clean up) of a disaster during an event.

Many problems are not actually world-ending issues but small things that escalate. Things that we could quite easily prevent but we don’t because we didn’t think about them. And the reason we often don’t think about them is that we are obsessed about the happy path: how do things go well.

We don’t want to think about bad things or failing. That’s understandable. Especially in a team, we might not want to tell that something that is a responsibility of a teammate could go wrong. After all, we don’t want to doubt others so that they wouldn’t doubt us. But the more open you can be, the better the team’s performance is and the better experience your event will be for participants.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

How to do a pre-mortem?

Step 1: List what went wrong

Just like every other methodology, there are books and articles written about how to do things. I have always just started with a very simple approach: book some time for a face-to-face (or Skype-to-Skype time if you have a remote team), start listing answers to the question: “Event is over and it was a failure. What happened?”

Different people will get different things on the list:

  • We forgot to order vegan food and some of our participants couldn’t eat
  • Toilets ran out of toilet paper
  • Everyone arrived 1 minute before the event started and the start was delayed because we couldn’t process them in fast enough
  • The audio quality with microphones was bad and people in the back couldn’t hear speakers
  • A keynote speaker cancelled and people were angry because they had bought tickets mainly to see her speak
  • Somebody sexually harassed another participant
  • Because of the weather, flights couldn’t land in time and our international guests couldn’t join the event
  • Our organizers burnt out on the first day
  • People didn’t read instructions and were mad when things were done differently than usually

“If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” — Albert Einstein

You should spend a big portion of your time for this. For a two-hour pre-mortem, first hour should go into coming up with these problems. You’ll thank yourself for your effort later when your event is a huge success.

Step 2: What are the top 10 problems?

Next, choose the top 10 problems: the ones with biggest impact but also the ones where the effort to solve is low and impact is rather high. These easy wins can make a huge difference.

To do the selection, you can choose multiple ways but one I recommend and that we use a lot in retrospectives is sticker voting. Everyone gets 10 stickers (all looking the same) and get to vote for their favorite. After that, you calculate points and take ten most voted problems.

There’s often temptation to start talking about the problems and their solutions already in this point but try to steer clear from that. Keep the voting process compact and quick.

Step 3: Solve problems

For the next hour of a 2-hour session, spend talking about the top 10 problems. What can you do to proactively avoid the issue? What kind of backup plans can you build to save you if the worst happens? How do you keep your participants satisfied even in case of total disaster?

Make sure you document the action plan and assign it to someone in your team. The more concrete your plan is, more likely you are to succeed. Let’s look at our list above and what we could do:

  • Make and review a plan for food early on, making sure you are aware of participants’ dietary restrictions (if applicable). Do research on different diets and allergies and cater to those in addition to what you might like to eat yourself.
  • The day before the event or the morning of event, do an inventory of stuff (or make sure the venue staff does) and know where you can get more supplies if needed. Share that to your staff in an easy-to-find place.
  • Book long enough time for registrations, emphasize early arrival in pre-event communication, and provide something enjoyable for people to do if they arrive early. Make sure you have enough people checking people in.
  • Do a sound and tech check: make sure sound works, video projector functions, you have backup pdfs of your speakers’ talks in case their laptop doesn’t work with your laptop.
  • Have a local backup speaker or two. People you can call up with very short time and who are great speakers.
  • Write a Code of Conduct, have someone responsible for being the contact person and make sure you follow these cases through.
  • Can you move into a smaller space or delay some of your operations?
  • Make a plan of how many people you need in your staff. There’s a lot of small things that accumulate to surprising amount of time.
  • Work on making your communication better and clearer.

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Step 4: Have an amazing event

Don’t disregard the items outside your top 10 list. Categorize them, distribute to people in charge and keep them on your desk. When working on a related area, go through the list and figure out how you can make the best out of a tough situation.

And remember, focus on people participating your event (and your team organizing it). Small and large mistakes can be salvaged by listening to your participants, being understanding, saying you’re sorry (and meaning it) and doing your best to save the situation.


  1. Book a few hours with your event team
  2. Step into future: “it’s the day after the event and we failed”
  3. List all the things that you can imagine that went wrong
  4. Vote for top 10
  5. Solve those problems before they happen
  6. Rock your event