The Premortem

“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. The beauty of the premortem is that it is very easy to do. My guess is that, in general, doing a premortem on a plan that is about to be adopted won’t cause it to be abandoned. But it will probably be tweaked in ways that everybody will recognize as beneficial. So the premortem is a low-cost, high-payoff kind of thing.”

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and a professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Why a premortem?

The premise of a premortem is simple.  Those considering adopting a new initiative—say, a strategic plan, a new compensation system, a technique for measuring profitability or streamlining workflow—are asked to imagine themselves a year hence when the initiative has failed miserably.  Everyone is invited to take a few minutes writing down the reasons it failed.

The rationale is to change the dynamic from trying to avoid any issue that might disrupt harmonious agreement on the initiative to challenging people to show they’re smart by surfacing potential problems.

Of course, an immediate beneficial consequence is to invite adjustments or fine-tuning to the initiative that will help increase its odds of success.  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.

How does it work?

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, for example:

  • External changes in the market, such as
    • the behavior of competitors,
    • the preferences of clients,
    • economic developments such as recessions,
    • technology,
    • new entrants into the market,
    • regulatory changes, or
    • shifts in the attractiveness/unattractiveness of particular practices areas.
  • Internal, firm-specific developments, such as
    • New leadership,
    • Arrival or departure of key talent or players
    • Winning or losing critical clients
    • Simple lack of focus or follow-through on executing the project
      • Why?
    • Changing opinions on the firm’s desired focus and direction.
    • Inadequate support from business professionals and the C-suite

Once people have finished listing their reasons, a leader goes around the room asking each person to describe one reason for failure, lists them on a whiteboard, and continues until everyone has exhausted their list.

This has been described as “a brainstorming session of doom,” and no idea is off-limits:

  • What if a new technology makes the entire concept obsolete?
  • What if our #1 champion leaves the firm?
  • What if partners go into passive-resistance mode and simply refuse to devote the time/money/effort to it that it takes?
  • What if business staff revolt?
  • What if it turns out to require technology that doesn’t exist in practical form?
  • What if clients tell us they don’t want it?
  • What if an earthquake or hurricane destroys our main office? (Seriously; all ideas are fair game at this point.)

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.

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