“Pre-mortems” Can Lead to More Successes

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Are you using “pre-mortems” to increase the probability of a project’s success?

I learned about pre-mortems years ago and have used them from time-to-time with leaders who are launching projects, planning start-ups and even presenters who want to win investor-deals.  While reading Sutton and Rao’s “Scaling Up Excellence:  Getting to More without Settling for Less”, a comment about it made me think it would be an excellent tool not just for business leaders  but also for individuals as they make career, relationship and other decisions that will affect their future selves. (For more on the Full Life Management (FLM) system to help people to lead fulfilling, elongated lives, see AgeBrilliantly.org.) My focus here is on business planning.

We initiate projects because we believe their ROI (return on investment of time and resources) is high enough to justify the investment and believe we have the resources needed to succeed. Our optimism, analysis, and foresight input from peers and experts, leads us to take the risks. Yet, failures occur; Investopedia reports that “21.5% of startups fail in the first year, 30% in the second year, 50% in the fifth year, and 70% in their 10th year.” Similarly, about half of US marriages fail despite the best of intentions.

When something fails, we conduct a post-mortem: we analyze what went wrong. A famous one was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion which discovered problems with the O-rings and the decision-making process used by the team that eventually allowed the Challenger to continue on is flight rather than take alternative actions. Daniel Kahneman credits psychologist Gary Klein with inventing the “pre-mortem” managerial strategy in which you imagine that a project has failed, and then work backwards to determine what potentially could lead to the failure. The goal is to avert real failures and ugly post-mortems that follow.

Sutton and Rao recommend the use of pre-mortems when a team is on the verge of making and implementing a decision. The team is told to imagine what happens some time in the future if the decision is made. Half the team is told to imagine that it was an unmitigated disaster; the other half pretends it was a roaring success.  Independently, each member generates reason – often in the form of a story about why the success or failure occurred – being as detailed as possible to identify causes that they wouldn’t usually mention “for fear of being impolitic.”  Then, each member reads the story to the group with someone recording and collating the reasons for failures and successes.  Finally, the group considers all the reasons and makes appropriate changes to strengthen the plan – or if the group uncovers overwhelming and impassable roadblocks, then you all go back to the drawing board.

The process uses “prospective hindsight”, gaining the insights of what your future selves might have gleaned from the experience. Using a “future perfect tense”, you explain the situation in a format such as: “We’ve devoted X months to study what went into the design and execution the plan. Looking back from the future, we can see the following key causes for the failure (or success).”

Kahneman, et.al, show that the pre-mortem process generates better decisions, predictions and plans. It helps people overcome blind spots. Sutton and Rao note that it “inoculates against clusterfugs” such as:

  • Illusion (that the plan is better and easier than the facts warrant)
  • Impatience (as everyone gets anxious to roll out the new project)
  • Incompetence (the spreading of incorrect information that taints the final decision)

Deborah Mitchell, a Wharton professor conducted an experiment on “prospective hindsight” and found that imaging that an event already occurred “increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%”. So, on your next project, try using pre-mortems to increase the odds of success!  Then, share the experience with us.