Premortems ahead of postmortems

The wisdom that hindsight offers us helps us carry out postmortems even if we are no experts with bringing a scalpel to cadavers. The only problem? The disasters that teach us so well are already behind us.

The psychologist Gary Klein proposes that we do a premortem instead. At the start of a project a team of decision makers imagines its state one year into the future. They assume that it has turned into a complete disaster! The team then takes about 10 or 15 minutes to write down why they thought it was a failure. They then discuss what each of them have written down.

The premortem is a remarkable exercise for several reasons. Firstly, it offers a deliberate counter to our bias for optimism that often blinds us towards risks. Second, it prevents group-think by having each member write down what they feel. Thirdly, it makes it acceptable to think of doomsday scenarios, speak uncomfortable truths and deliver bad news. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, it favours intervention before the patient is dead.

Our bias towards optimism and hindsight are innate tendencies that are hard to counter. To mitigate their flip-sides, all we need to do is to act as if disaster has already happened in the future, and work backwards from there. By doing so, we salvage projects before they overrun schedules and run out of budget, as most projects do.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

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