One meeting all designers should attend

Yep. I know. Meetings can be the bane of a professional’s existence.

Infact, a client once asked me to visually map every meeting she was meant to attend in the upcoming week. It proved she had no ‘free’ time to ‘do’ her job because others had scheduled her attendance at their meetings. Cheek to jowl meetings … as a result she limited external access to her diary. But I digress.

Yes, meetings can be unproductive but there is one meeting I think all design teams should plan and attend…

The pre-mortem

Pre-mortems are meetings scheduled to happen before a project commences.

There are many ways to run a pre-mortem. The common objective is to identify possible risks to, and opportunities for, a project.

Pre-mortems are a safe environment:
no idea is wrong and
no one is reluctant to speak up.

Sessions can be as detailed or as brief as needed. A large project with many touchpoints and deliverables may need time whereas repeat projects may just need a short meeting to remind everyone of the challenges.

What happens at a pre-mortem?

There is no ‘wrong’ way to pre-mortem. Typically the meeting would include the project team and perhaps subject experts – the aim is to view a project through many different lens. Clients may or may not be involved, depending on the circumstances.

The first step is for the project lead to explain the scope of the task. This is a great opportunity to check everyone is on the same page: that there is clarity around the strategy, the tactics and most importantly, the measures of success. It’s also the time to review the talent needed to meet the deliverables.

From there methodology varies. We like to divide the project team into two groups: a failure team and a success team.

  • The failure team brainstorms all the reasons the project could fail. What could go wrong? Examples include: the key creative could fall ill; or client approval is slow and causes scheduling issues; or the website doesn’t cope with the traffic and falls over. Post each ‘fail’ on a wall. Don’t worry about being negative – this is the time to think the worst, and it’s where a diverse project team works brilliantly. A technical expert may forecast a possible disaster others just can’t see.
  • The success team
 brainstorms all the ways the project could succeed. Perhaps a social media post goes viral; or the product sells out quickly; or you come in under budget and can extend the scope. Write down all the possibilities and post each onto a wall.

The teams share insights and with discussion reduce both lists to three main risks / opportunities. These points are considered in more detail and plans are devised to avoid the potential risks and seize the possible opportunities.

But it’s not left there. Responsibility for each one of the three risks and opportunities are delegated to someone on the project team. One person has the role to monitor the project with that one focus, alert to the possibility of the proposed actually happening. In some cases, the project leader may rewrite the project plan to include the insights.

Use the pre-mortem meeting to ask leading questions.

Even small projects can benefit from an informal pre-mortem. Take the opportunity to gather and discuss possibilities:

To the digital lead: what aspect of this project will keep you awake at night?
To the account service: what is the one thing the client will not want to hear?
To the design lead: what could cause us to miss the deadline?
To all: what lessons have we learnt from similar projects?


It’s recorded that Abraham Lincoln said give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

That’s exactly the premise of pre-mortems. Preparation is king. Any time spent analysing possible outcomes before a project is never time wasted.


What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol Mackay

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
My current work can be viewed at and

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