Declaring What Success Looks Like Isn’t a Plan, Here’s One Based on Failure

We often have a very clear picture in our heads of what success looks like. It can mean hitting certain revenue targets, raising another round or successfully landing a major client. Discussing success as a team can reveal a few unsettling truths: 1. The definition of success can differ vastly from person to person and 2. Very little is known about what might happen that would slow or prevent success. We can get so obsessed with success that we might ignore a pretty stark reality: the only way to be successful is to beat failure. 

Why the emphasis on failure?

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, only 50% of businesses make it past the 5 year milestone, and only 1/3 of businesses survive the first ten years. If so many companies fail, and beyond that, countless projects and initiatives, why isn’t there a stronger focus on beating failure? Further, why is failure such a key ingredient in Silicon Valley speak, when it comes to startups and scale ups? Is it because people believe it is inevitable? Or is it because people aren’t looking at the right information and data?
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When we think about failure, we’re prompted to expand our field of vision and prioritize differently. Getting clear about what factors and forces can cause failure, specifically using a Pre-Mortem Methodology to do so, creates a roadmap for success. 

What is the Pre-Mortem Methodology?

Designed by cognitive psychologist Gary Klein over 20 years ago and used since then by many of the world’s most successful companies, conducting a pre-mortem can revolutionize your approach, internal culture and business. And more practically, a 1 hour meeting with a pre-mortem on the agenda can save you a year of surprises, assumptions and misalignment – all things that kill culture and potential for success.


The process is relatively simple. First, participants individually answer the prompt “What will cause XYZ to fail?” with as many responses as possible. Next, each entry is categorized and  scored on a scale of 1-10 as a group, based on likelihood and impact. Those responses are multiplied, and a ranked list of priorities is the outcome. As a final step, priorities can then be assigned to participants, thus creating accountability and mitigating risk

When should you conduct a pre-mortem?

Whether you are about to embark on an important initiative, are experiencing uncertainty or facing a fear of failure, conducting a pre-mortem is always the way to go.


For example, key triggers for a pre-mortem session include a change in strategy, internal culture issues, launching a new product or service, when trust in leadership is low or perhaps when it is time to evolve your existing business, brand positioning or move into emerging markets or moonshot opportunities. 

Ultimately, the Pre-Mortem Methodology helps you navigate the unknown

Humans don’t like talking about failure. It’s a taboo subject and most people would prefer to move on as fast as possible, but the value of the pre-mortem can drastically alter the way we view personal and professional failure for the better.