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InfoQ Homepage News PayPal Engineering Teams Implement Premortem Analysis

PayPal Engineering Teams Implement Premortem Analysis

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In a recent blog post, the PayPal engineering team published how it uses premortem analysis as part of its regular software design process. The team adopted a customized version of premortem analysis last year, which highly benefited PayPal engineering.

Premortem is a strategy in which a team imagines that a project has failed and then works backward to determine what potentially could lead to the failure of a project. Using this method normalized the team's ability to talk about potential failure scenarios and think about what they can do better before actually doing it. Seema Thapar, the post author, notes that unlike a postmortem or root-cause analysis that a team performs after things have failed, a premortem is done before starting the project.


Thapar describes the premortem analysis process at PayPal:

Once a technical design is documented, the standard next step is to have key stakeholders review the design.

The premortem strategy asks us to flip that script and ask what if the proposed design implementation failed. The next step in this strategy is to brainstorm with your team on the possible reasons for the technical design to fail. The main point to keep in mind is to get creative with your team. Come up with as many ideas for failure as possible. Finding faults for the greater good is a liberating exercise, especially when initiated at the beginning of a project. The aim is to bubble up the most robust design alternatives. It is key not to sweat on the solutions yet, just the problems. Brainstorming solutions can come later as a team.

In the PayPal process, an engineer writes a one-pager for the user story, including describing the problem and the proposed solution. Next, the team conducts a premortem to discuss how this design could miss pitfalls. Once the team completes the premortem, the engineer addresses the issues and refines the design.

The most significant benefit for PayPal is the ability to catch issues early on and expose blind spots. In addition, premortem encourages everyone on the team to see the big picture, and it breaks down silos and relies on the team's collective intelligence and imagination. Also, it creates an environment of psychological safety where the team normalizes talking about failures.

Moreover, according to Thapar, it's a great way for tech leads and managers to mentor and coach new and less experienced team members and increases team engagement and participation.

Gary Klein coined the term Premortem Analysis in a Harvard Business Review article in 2007. It is a method devised to help project teams identify risks at the outset. Klein captured the essence of the premortem technique:

Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the "patient" has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members' task is to generate plausible reasons for the project's failure.

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient's death. As Klein notes, in a postmortem, everyone benefits except, of course, the patient.

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