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Don’t wait til the idea is dead – make better decisions with a project pre mortem

by | Oct 23, 2023

I came across a great idea to address bias in decision making by a psychologist called Gary Klein. We’re all familiar with the idea of a project post mortem to establish what’s gone well and not so well with a project but what about the idea of a pre mortem?

Research conducted at the Wharton School and University of Colorado identified something they called ‘prospective hindsight’—imagining that an event has already occurred – and they found this can increase a person’s ability to correctly identify what happens in the future by 30%. I recently ran an innovation sprint for a client and we used this process to help us figure out what might go wrong.

What is a pre-mortem?

Projects may fail for many reasons. The pre-mortem helps you and your group recognize potential barriers, vulnerabilities and complications around your project and so anticipate problems to overcome.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Gary Klein an expert in decision making, explains further:

“Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.”

Why use a pre-mortem?

When trying to generate creative ideas, perhaps in a group brainstorming session, it helps to structure your session so that when you are generating ideas for the first time, you avoid dissenting with each other in order to generate a volume of options. You can decide whether they are workable as the next stage. But when it comes to planning dissent is a really useful way to assess the pros and cons of an idea, evaluate whether any risks are associated and to find holes in a plan. This is where the pre mortem fits in.

The idea is similar to Edward De Bono’s ‘black hatted’ thinking as part of his famous six thinking hats technique – spotting all the pitfalls and issues with a project – but it isolates the negative thinking into one-stage.

How to run a pre-mortem

Step 1 – imagine that you are 3 years into the future, and despite all of the team’s efforts, the idea, campaign or project you have been working on has failed—catastrophically, and many things have gone completely wrong.

Ask yourself and your team: what does the worst-case scenario look like for you and the project? Describe the failure as fully as you can.
Step 2 –generate all the reasons for this failure. Spend time recording the reasons that could cause this failure
Ask your team: what could have caused our project to fail and list the reasons. Think if there are any underlying assumptions that you have made that have led to this position.
What assumptions did I make? What assumptions did others make?
Step 3 –now prioritise your list of potential reasons for failure. Use your own criteria to decide what is most/least likely and discuss why you think that’s the case. Try to remember your own potential bias and be open-minded.
Ask your team: what specific actions could we take to avoid or manage these concerns?
You can do all the above stages individually, in pairs or as a group. What might you do differently now having undertaken the PM?
The group I was working with for the innovation sprint used this process to help them to identify any big possible cock ups before they happened and they loved it! Give it a whirl as part of your next workshop or brainstorming session before you land on your final ideas.

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