No More 'If Only' – Demystifying the Concept of Pre-MortemsJun 20, 2023
We've all been there: that moment when we complete a project or have made a big decision, whether successful or not, and sit down to reflect and pick apart the outcome. This is what’s called a post-mortem meeting. In retrospect, everything is clearer, and we often find ourselves saying, "If only we'd considered that!" But what if we could move those post-mortem insights to the front? The good news is we can! That is called a pre-mortem.
Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, once said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." Pre-mortems are about fool proofing our plans before we even start.
Picture yourself with your dream team, an impeccable strategy, and an ambitious goal. Everything seems perfect and ready to roll. But wait! Before you hit the green light, you take a pause and ask your team, "Let's assume our project has spectacularly failed. What could possibly have gone wrong?" This, my friends, is a pre-mortem.
Unlike a post-mortem, where we examine the 'corpse' of a 'deceased' project or decision, a pre-mortem is a forward-looking, preventive tool. This creative exercise allows us to predict and prepare for potential problems before they become insurmountable challenges. It's less about responding and more about anticipating, like a meteorologist forecasting weather patterns before you embark on a seafaring expedition.
Why a pre-mortem?
The benefits are many. First and foremost, it stimulates a culture of proactive problem-solving and openness. The pre-mortem exercise gives you the ability to troubleshoot vulnerabilities before they turn into costly errors. Additionally, it shapes a space where everyone, irrespective of their roles, is encouraged to voice their concerns and reservations without the fear of being tagged as a pessimist.
As Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and author of "Thinking, Fast and Slow," pointed out, "The exercise of a pre-mortem is to imagine that you are a year into the future. You implemented your plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take five to ten minutes to write a brief history of that disaster." It's a tool that encourages not only foresight but also collaboration, with everyone contributing to and learning from a shared pool of insights.
In a professional context, pre-mortems foster dynamic and insightful conversations, leading to solid project plans. They democratize decision-making, allowing team members to share potential obstacles they envision, thereby preventing the dangerous phenomenon of groupthink, where conformity often overshadows critical evaluation.
On a personal front, pre-mortems can be equally powerful. Let's say you're contemplating a significant career shift, or perhaps considering investing a sizeable chunk of your savings. Running a solo pre-mortem by visualizing all possible missteps will offer you a fresh perspective and better prepare you for the journey ahead.
How do you conduct a pre-mortem?
There are numerous ways to conduct a pre-mortem, but the simplest, most straightforward way is to work though the following six steps. The key to a successful pre-mortem is to take your time and not rush through it. Remember, one of the key outcomes of a pre-mortem is to preemptively identify and prepare for what problems could arise.
- Define the Project or Decision: Clearly state what you are planning to do, including objectives and key steps.
- Assume Failure: Imagine a scenario in which your plan has failed spectacularly.
- Identify Potential Problems: Brainstorm reasons why this failure occurred. Encourage open, unfiltered discussion.
- Rank Problems: Assign each problem a ranking based on the likelihood of its occurrence and the potential impact on the project.
- Develop Contingency Plans: Based on the ranking, develop plans to either prevent these problems or mitigate their impact.
- Document and Revisit: Record the output of your pre-mortem and revisit it regularly as the project progresses.
Despite its somewhat gloomy nature, a pre-mortem isn't about doom and gloom. It's not about becoming professional pessimists; it's about being proactive realists. As the old saying goes, "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."
So, before you set sail on your next project or major decision, take a detour, and envision what could go wrong. Conduct a pre-mortem. It's likely to give you a fresh set of insights that will make your strategies more resilient, and your path to success less bumpy.
Remember that the goal here isn't to amplify our fears but to harness them in our favor, to make better-informed decisions, and to improve our chances of success.
May your next project and/or decision be a resounding success!