Try the premortem approach to avoid disaster

I’ve been advising readers to consider modifying business models, or starting new initiatives, to adapt to the new normal (whatever that is) and to find opportunity in a crisis.  Hopefully, you are excited to get started. But because this is going to be new to all of us, if you don’t follow this one piece of easy advice, it’s not going to work.  Don’t take it personally, business projects fail all the time. You shouldn’t worry about it; you should embrace it.

How can we peek into the future to see how we will fail, without actually having to fail? We have all seen the failures before – an initiative is launched with fanfare and optimism, but either barely gets off the ground or implodes on itself.  Introducing the “premortem” – a reframing tool that challenges assumptions, discovers unknown unknowns, anticipates the unanticipated, then allows for an improved path toward success.

Justin’s company, an electrical engineering firm in Pittsfield, MA, doesn’t fear failure.  Justin shaped his firm’s culture by carrying it over from his years of competing in jiu-jitsu tournaments when he was a younger man. Sometimes, Justin would submit his opponent with an armbar or a chokehold, sometimes he squeaked by with enough points to get his hand raised. But he never lost.  Well, that’s the way he looked at it. Justin tapped out as many times as he won.  But he never saw it as losing – he either won, or he learned.  As Justin explained to me, if you are at the professional level in the sport of jiu-jitsu and you get caught in a submission, you’ll train to never make that mistake again.  I hope that for my readers this is true in the sport of business; that you learn from your mistakes and never make the same ones again.  However, when it comes to our businesses the stakes are higher, it’s not winning or learning, it’s winning or losing – losing your money.

A postmortem, in the medical field, is an examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death.  In the business world, a postmortem is a process to determine why a project failed in order to help avoid subsequent defeats (by improving future processes).  It is a good practice, but it’s like Justin watching the tapes to see how he got stuck in a Peruvian necktie – it helps him to never get caught in that submission again, but he still had to tap out.

The premortem takes a different approach. You try to figure out what will go wrong before it goes wrong by imagining that a project has already failed miserably.  You operate on the assumption that the failure did happen, as opposed to approaching it more abstractly and discussing what could happen. In a 1989 study called “Back to The Future: Temporal Perspective in the Explanation of Events” (Journal of Behavioral Decision Making), researchers found that people would generate more and deeper reasons around an event if they already knew the outcome with certainty – the certainty mattered more than whether or not the event was real. Compared to a typical pre-plan assessment, imagining something had occurred improved the number of reasons by 30% and created twice as many action-based reasons.

The typical pre-plan assessment doesn’t work because nobody speaks up about concerns in the planning phase, instead trying to get in line with the boss’ idea.  Or, worse, as the project progresses, people are reluctant to scrap the project even if they expect it to be a failure because failure carries a stigma.  But with a premortem, the game has changed.  Now the boss is asking the employees to show how clever they are by being able to identify the reasons the project failed.  Team members feel valued and are credited for their insight, not snubbed.  Their job isn’t to defend the plan but to tear it apart, foster a positive discussion on threats, candidly explain the several ways in which things can go wrong, and identify problems that were not previously mentioned, or even considered.  Even if it might appear impolite.

Each team member writes down all the reasons it failed, then they work backward to figure out what missteps led to defeat, what support was not received, who didn’t do their job, and what other things got in the way of success. Don’t generalize, and don’t use this as a forum to vent.  Make your list specific, practical, and actionable.  You peered into the future and saw all the things that went wrong, so now you can go around the room to discuss what you will do differently. You have moved your project closer to success because you won’t make those same mistakes twice.