The first time I suggested we carry out a pre-mortem to improve decision-making in the future, the sales director nearly had a fit. We had finally won a very prestigious contract after 18 months. Now here I was, trying to get people to imagine it had gone horribly wrong. Right after he’d done his rousing Henry V speech. Why was I trying to screw things up?
A year in the future, the project has failed miserably, catastrophically.
First of all, what the hell is a pre-mortem? It’s a term coined by Gary Klein in his book “The Power of Intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work”. Klein has studied decision-making for thirty years, with the military, first responders, emergency medics – people involved in potentially life or death situations. A pre-mortem is held right at the start of a project. At the project kick-off meeting, the project team has to look into a crystal ball. A year in the future, the project has failed miserably, catastrophically. Their job, in three minutes, is to each come up with ten reasons why it failed.
You can see why the sales director was pissed-off. He wanted them to sing reasons to be cheerful, not group-hallucinate about the whole thing going titsup.
If you’re not looking, unforeseen events are always going to be unforeseeable
We’ve all seen and felt the infectious over-optimism at the start of a project. No one wants anything to go wrong, so there’s a tacit refusal to face awkward truths. No one wants to be the one to point out the flaws in the plan, so instead the Project Manager copies and pastes the risk register from the last project and everyone’s happy. Until things start going wrong and everyone starts talking about perfect storms and black swans. If you’re not looking, unforeseen events are always going to be unforeseeable.
If you give people permission to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, corporately you have a robust framework for making better decisions. You don’t need to pretend that the future will be the same as the past, plus 10% contingency. A pre-mortem encourages innovative thinking and problem solving.
There’s no need to wait for the patient to die before learning from the experience.