“The premortem is a great idea. I mentioned it at Davos and the chairman of a large corporation said it was worth coming to Davos for.”
—Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and a professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.
As importantly, people are alerted to potential difficulties going forward and rather than being defensive or in denial about those obstacles, they can address them actively and creatively, recognizing that “this is a possibility we foresaw and discussed” [so we were right all along].
The goal is not to suffocate the project in its cradle—unless that appears the only rational outcome given all the hurdles which may be identified—but instead to improve the odds of its success by anticipating blockages and obstacles and creating ways to head them off or work around them.
The Premortem Workshop Process
Premortems should involve everyone on the project team, and begin with a joint exercise. If done thoroughly, this all-hands meeting could last two hours or more.
Step 1: Identifying problems
At the outset, everyone is told that one year after launch the project has failed utterly. Each person is then given a few minutes to write down their thoughts on why, in “hindsight,” the project failed and what went wrong. Reasons for failure can be extremely varied, and might include external changes in the market and internal, firm-specific developments. A few examples:
- the behavior of competitors,
- the preferences of clients,
- economic developments such as recessions,
- new entrants into the market,
- regulatory changes,
- shifts in the attractiveness/unattractiveness of particular practices areas.
- New leadership,
The only topic that is not permitted during this phase is for people to suggest proposed solutions to any of the obstacles, because that immediately alters everyone’s focus. This can be more tempting for people than you might assume, but with disciplined moderation and guidance it can be avoided.
Step 2: Prioritizing
At this point you should have a long list of potential problems, so now the time is to prioritize them. Here are the selection criteria for narrowing down the list to a size the group can deal with effectively:
- Eliminate the most far-fetched, unlikely, and improbable. Focus on developments that might actually occur We want to have the list be primarily composed of those “elephant in the room” issues that are deemed impermissible to talk about.
- Eliminate eventualities you have no control over. It’s useless to spend an iota of time or effort on them because there’s nothing to be done. Out goes the hurricane or earthquake.
- Focus on the most consequential possibilities: Drop anything that would have only a minor or tangential impact. You want to get down the existential threats to the project.
Step 3: Problem-solving
Finally comes the step that everyone has probably been eagerly awaiting—and which, perhaps oddly, can be the easiest now that all the problems, including the “unspeakable” ones, have been written down for all to see. Propose solutions.
By and large, the potentially show-stopping problems remaining will either be problems that exist and need to be addressed today (partners aren’t buying into the project itself, for example) or problems that might arise down the road but aren’t yet a live issue (a key champion leaves).
Nothing can guarantee the success of a major new initiative. The world is changeable and the future unforeseeable in important ways. Not only that, but the players involved—your partners, your clients, your competitors—have free will and can change their behavior in light of the initiative itself. How they’re behaving today (a competitor is refusing to adopt project management tools) can be different tomorrow (seeing your firm invest in project management, they decide they better face the music and they do so as well).
The best you can do is to:
- Show clarity and candor about the most serious obstacles that could derail the project;
- Firmly address those you need to address today and figure out how to address others that might arise in the future;
- And hold team members strictly accountable for what you’ve all agreed to do.
The premortem is one of the most effective, and economical, techniques we’ve come across to help give your new project the fighting chance it deserves.
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