Prenatal Exercises for Your Project


If you have ever been part of a postmortem exercise, you probably remember it with less than fond memories. The goal of the postmortem is to record the successes, failures, and any issues that arose during a project so that they can be documented as "lessons learned" and then prevented in future projects. A member of the team, typically the project manager, gathers the important players together at the completion of a project to go over the good, bad, and ugly. By this time, most members of the team, especially the test team and development team, are sick and tired of the application and the problems they ran into.

The last thing that people want to do at the end of a project is dredge up problems that are better left alone. What is that saying about letting sleeping dogs lie? More often than not, this activity can turn into a finger-pointing exercise where inadequacies in the project are blamed on groups or individuals. This, in turn, can lead to building up more walls between departments and hindering the success of future projects. Many times, this information is then stored in some directory on the network, rather than acting on the findings to institute process improvement.

I propose that the postmortem exercise, even if done well, is a less than optimal way to gain process efficiencies that are crucial to the success of any IT project. More appropriately, prenatal exercises are in order. You may be asking yourself, "What are prenatal exercises?"

From the Latin root, "prea" or "pre" meaning before, and "natalis" or "natal" meaning being born, the word may be used to define activities that take place before the birth of a project that can help to ensure its success. In this article, I plan to outline a very simple, yet powerful way to organize the activities associated with any project before it begins.

With any new idea, it is important that the people involved understand the benefits. Below is a list of ideas that you should share with people at your company regarding the benefits of prenatal exercises.

Establishing Expectations
By explaining the importance of the project and how it will be successfully completed, team members can begin to envision their roles and how they will fit into the big picture. Joyce Kosman, a managing consultant at Spherion Corporation, refers to this approach as "Doing It Right the First Time."
1 (DIRTFT, pronounced "dirty feet"). By setting the parameters for a project up front, many issues or risks can be resolved before they occur.

"Many times you see a project start without any forethought. Setting up some basic rules up front could prevent a lot of misunderstandings down the road," says Ms. Kosman. "Instead of figuring out what we did wrong (and right) at the end of the project, define as many processes and procedures as possible prior to the start of the project so potential failures can be mitigated."


Reporting Informa-tion

Member(s)    Receiving  Information

Receiving Information


Medium   Used


Project manager

Project sponsor, projects office analyst

Status meeting

Provide status on schedules and issues



Project manager

Projects office analyst

Project status/milestone report

Document status on schedules and issues

Email or file transfer


Test manager

Project manager, dev. manager

Test results report

Provide status test run results

Paper or email

Weekly during test cycles

Test manager

Dev. manager, project manager, user group

Project portfolio progress meeting

Report on current status of open defects


Weekly during test cycles

Develop- ment manager

Test manager, project sponsor, project manager

Weekly status report

Communicate and document status of the development effort



Steering committee

Projects office staff, project sponsor, project manager

Problem report/change request

Communicate and document project adjustment

Online (problem reporting database)

As needed

Steering committee

Projects office staff, project sponsor, project manager

Disposition change request

Communicate and document status of all change requests

Online (problem reporting database)

As needed

Project manager

Projects office analyst, project sponsor

Significant problems or issues

Report issues as soon as possible

Email, voice mail, in person


Projects office director

Steering committee

Significant problems or issues

Report issues as soon as possible

Email, meeting



·       Important processes defined: Important processes such as defect tracking, configuration management, and change control management all need to be developed and communicated during the prenatal exercise. A well-run prenatal exercise will answer the “what” and “how” process questions that team members have. Being proactive in this way shows the importance of the project to the success of the company. It also gives team members confidence that the project will be well run. This also saves team members from spending valuable time during the project finding out how to accomplish these key activities when the clock is ticking.

·       Methods of communication: Creation of a communication plan (there will be more on this later) will help team members get the right information to the right players at the right time. Hopefully, defining the information flow early will facilitate team members getting up to speed and being efficient more quickly. It also organizes people by introducing players to one another at the beginning of the project. Players know who to go to right up front instead of wasting time later trying to figure out who has or needs important information.

Now that we have laid the framework for a prenatal activity, let's define what the actual exercises will look like. Here is a list of items that you should review in setting up prenatal exercises for your company.

·       Frequency of exercise: Depending on your company's situation, you should set aside at least a half-day to go over the specifics of the project as they are known and lay out a road map. If more time is available, additional processes can be sorted out by the team members themselves. This is especially effective if the processes relate to their areas of expertise. Who better to design the test procedures than the test team?

·       Exercises and project life: The exercises are only performed once prior to the start of the project, but are referred to often and modified, if necessary, during the project to keep expectations in line with delivery agreements. If process problems occur during the project that were addressed in the prenatal exercises, then team members can be reminded what was agreed upon.

·       Leadership: The leader can be the project manager, test manager, development manager, or the stakeholder. Regardless of who leads the exercises, their role is that of a facilitator. He or she will introduce team members and speakers and they will then present the content of the meeting. Content ideas for the exercises are explained later in this article.

·       Participation: Depending on the size of your team, it could be everyone or only management.  Regardless of the number of people, it is very important that both business and IT are represented. If only management and team leads are invited, there must be follow-up exercises with all other team members to communicate the processes put into place.

·       Documentation: The agreements made and the information imparted should be kept for future reference. The exercise sets some fundamental ground rules that can be referred to if there are questions about how some aspect of the project is run. Store all information in a shared directory that all team members can review as needed. Make sure to version-control the documents to track any changes that are made to them.

·       Agreements list: Again, this would depend on your company and how well the participants know each other. In a case where team members know little about one another, and there is an uncertainty about how the team will interact, it may be a good idea to have people commit in writing to any agreements made. If team members share in the development of the processes, there is usually a "buy-in" that would make signatures unnecessary.

Now that we have discussed how a prenatal exercise should be conducted, and who should participate, let's look at what information should be shared. To begin, focus on the following four areas during the prenatal exercises. As you tailor these exercises for your company, you will need to add or modify this list.

Definition of the Communications Plan
For any project to be successful, it is crucial to get the right information to the right person at the right time. It can be very frustrating for individuals on a team to find out about some new requirement well after it was approved. This can lead to frustration and resentment among team members, not to mention rework and delays. This situation can be resolved with a communications plan. A communications plan lists the type of communications needed for the project, who is responsible for creation and distribution of the communication, and who will receive the different types of communication and under what circumstances. Below is an example of a communication plan.

Column header definitions:

·         Responsibility to report information: This is the person who will be sending out the communication.

·         Member(s) receiving information: The names of all the people who need to receive the information.

·         Receiving information mechanism: How will the communication be delivered (e-mail, phone call, etc.)?

·         Objective: What is the main purpose of the communication?

·         Frequency: How often the recipients will receive this communication.

·         Approved by: Depending on the project, some communications need to be reviewed and approved before distribution.

Introduction of the Project's Sponsor and Stakeholder(s)
It is also important to introduce the sponsor and stakeholder(s) who will be supporting the project. The sponsor is the person in the company, either inside or outside the IT group, who is ultimately responsible and accountable for the success of the project and is usually paying the bill for the project activities. This person should attend the prenatal exercises to share their convictions and explain the business needs associated with the project.

Any and all stakeholders should also attend the exercises if possible. Stakeholders are people who have a stake in the success of the project, or whose department is affected by the results of the project. When members of the project team understand the importance of their project from a business perspective, it helps them to look outside their myopic view and gaze at the larger picture for a few minutes. It also helps to take ownership of the outcome of the project when they see how it will directly contribute to the health and bottom line of the company.

Definition of the Critical Success Factors
Another important exercise is the communication of the critical success factors associated with the project. Critical success factors are those project objectives that must be met in order for the project to be deemed a success. Missing any one of the critical success factors means the project has failed. A stakeholder or sponsor is the best person to present the critical success factors to the team. Team members can refer back to the success factors during the project and they can use them to guide their activities. An example of a critical success factor could be the date the system needs to be available to the users in the field.

Definition of Deliverables
Finally, the deliverables of a project should be defined. Deliverables are the products" that will be created and given to another group or individual during and after completion of the project. It is common to think of deliverables only as items completed at the end of the project. In reality, deliverables for each phase of the project lifecycle should be defined and communicated in the prenatal exercises.

The entrance and exit criteria for each phase should be defined and communicated as well. Also define what milestones will be accomplished and when. It might be a good idea to go over the high-level project plan during this step.

Though there is some value to the postmortem, prenatal exercises can define up front the activities that will make the project run more efficiently. Many problems may be avoided by “Doing It Right the First Time,” thus saving both time and headaches later in the project. Follow the steps above during your prenatal exercise and you will be well on your way to a smoother running project.


1) Crosby, Philip. Quality is Free. 


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