Do you do a product launch pre-mortem with your internal stakeholders before a product launch and if so, who do you include and what is your process for running it?
I’ve led pre-mortems at various stages of product - from early product concept, to alpha/beta stage, to immediately pre-launch. Pre-mortems are valuable exercises (and I think they’re fun!). They help teams examine their assumptions, surface concerns without being painted as downers, and come to a response plan as a group.
For a pre-mortem, I bias on the side of including more folks than not. It’ll also depend on the nature of the product and launch. At a minimum, I always include PM, research, engineering, sales, PR, internal comms, and legal. Also add in SMEs as necessary. For example, if the product is developer-oriented, then can’t forget developer advocates.
Here’s the process I like to use for a pre-launch pre-mortem:
- First, outline the goals of the launch and tie key metric to each goal: in an ideal scenario, what do we want the results to be? When I ran an auction launch at Facebook, our goals are to strengthen our auction system by A, B, C, factors, understand impact to customers, develop personalized communication plan to top customers, provide messaging to rest of sales, publish on blog, manage PR reactions, etc.
- Then, run through the scenarios of why we would fail. I look at two factors: how likely are the scenarios and what are the impact of those scenarios: Likely/High Impact, Likely/Low Impact, Unlikely/High Impact, Unlikely/Low Impact. This helps with prioritization of where we spend most of our time and mindspace given that both are usually in short supply.
- Lastly, draft response plans to each of the scenarios, focusing on Likely/High Impact, Unlikely/High Impact, and Likely/Low Impact scenarios. What can we do to prevent - or more likely - mitigate these scenarios? PMM takes the lead in drafting sales / customer-oriented responses, working with PR in translating technical or product content for a broader audience consumption, and helping PM understand the impact of potential product responses.
- Ideally, we’d iterate on this a few times to uncover new problems or dig deeper into issues that we’re not feeling 100% about.
I find pre-mortems are most effective when all the stakeholders are in the same room, but that's not always realistic. I've done asynchronous pre-mortems with multiple teams, present scenarios / responses as pre-reads, and then have as many of the key stakeholders as possible to come together for review.
For a full-scale launch, yes, I do a pre-mortem about a month ahead of time so there is time to act on any key risk-mitigation activities before launch date.
I like to do an async brainstorm in a google sheet with two tabs.
- 🤕 Everything failed miserably...
- 🤩Everything was beyond our dreams!
The prompt for tab 1
Imagine we launched product X...
We thought we did everything we could, but the product is not taking off like we hoped.
- What did we do that we SHOULDN'T have done or what did we NOT do to set ourselves up for success?
- What did we get wrong?
The prompt for tab 2
Imagine we launched product X...
Everything surpassed our wildest expectations and users love it.
- What did we do right to end up here?
I ask *everyone on the team* in all functions to contribute at least 2-5 rows to the brain trust. I ask them to select a preset category from a dropdown, write a brief description of what the item is, and add their name in an "author" column.
Then we have a meeting to go through and prioritize potential issues or risk mitigators. As we prioritize we assign owners to make sure those safety measures are put in place.
For lighter launches, we may host a kickoff meeting to ensure alignment as we head into public announcements, but I don't tend to do a full pre-mortem.
I think it’s very familiar in PMM to be combing through everything the night before a launch and feel a little anxiety!
We typically handle this “pre-mortem” work in two ways:
- Strategic: Document and address the risks as they come up. I have a “Risks and Considerations” slide in my launch deck that I use as my scratchpad for everything that surfaces during launch preparations. Generally, I raise these with the appropriate stakeholders and try to work through them as they come up, rather than waiting until right before a launch.
- Tactical: I think my team would tell you that I am notorious for being in “See Something Say Something” mode in the days before a launch. This is where I try to put my customer hat on and walk through the full set of launch assets as though I’m seeing them for the first time. Nobody likes making last-minute changes, but it’s always helpful to look at how everything connects. Not rocket science, but helpful to remember nonetheless.
We don't call it a pre-mortem, but we have two documents that help us facilitate constructive discussion. A GTM handover document that the PM fills out, and a product launch template that we fill out in detail that includes messaging, goals, risks, channels. Once we craft the messaging and general strategy and we run it past the product team and head of product to make sure we are aligned before executing. We usually record a Loom explaining the approach and share it in Slack.
Another major partner during a launch is the brand design team. We try to include them as early as possible to leverage their creative ideas and give them enough time to contribute to the success of the launch.
In my experience, this is something we’ve done for Level 1 or Level 2 launches that involve dozens of stakeholders across various functions. The goal for these pre-mortems is really to anticipate pitfalls and increase project success, whether that’s simply by eliminating the fear around negative outcomes or identifying potential mitigations that can be put in place to avoid those altogether. The key players in sessions like this are typically PMM, EPD (Engineering/Product/Design), Enablement and Marketing Leads including PR.