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Every single day, things die unnecessarily. Lots of things.
In fields such as healthcare, the connotation is unfortunately a literal one. Each year, 900,000 Americans die prematurely from the five leading causes of death, and the figures suggest that between 20% and 40% are preventable.
However, in most areas, death takes on a more figurative sense. Projects die. Programs flat line. Initiatives nosedive. Transformations fail. And the rate at which they do is alarming. Estimates suggest that only 41% of projects will be successful in terms of meeting expectations for time, cost and quality. Whether the number is completely accurate is irrelevant; the undeniable truth is that in whatever we set out to accomplish, there is a real and significant chance that we will fail.
In response to these failures, organizations have turned to postmortem reviews designed to prevent future recurrences. No matter how thorough and effective the postmortem, however, there is and always will be one **ahem** fatal flaw with the process. Let’s see if you can pick it out in the diagram below:
In case the answer did not jump off of the page at you, let’s further consider the word postmortem. The term combines the Latin roots post-, meaning “after”, and –mortem, meaning “death”. By definition, a postmortem occurs only after the damage has already been done. Indeed, there are many that may benefit from a postmortem review, just not the deceased. The question that remains, however, is what is the alternative to the postmortem review?
How do we anticipate and prevent our mistakes before they result in catastrophe? The answer, as you may have anticipated yourself, lies in a technique dubbed the premortem, which as the figure below implies, attempts to limit the figurative (and in some cases literal) body count prevalent in our organizations today.
What is the Premortem Technique?
The premortem was first introduced in 2007 by Gary Klein, who based the technique on research from the topic of prospective hindsight, which involves generating an explanation for a future event as if it has already happened. The theory suggests that people can make better decisions about the future, not by predicting the future as an outcome of the current state (foresight), but by shifting perspective to a future outcome and envisioning the preceding events that would be required to create the future state (prospective hindsight).
The difference in effectiveness between the two techniques occurs because of the separate ways that our brains process past states and future states. We view the future as full of ambiguity and uncertainty, and thus we tend to devote little effort towards understanding what has yet to be. The past, on the other hand, is a near certainty; if anything, we are overconfident about our knowledge of what has already happened and freely spend time and effort understanding it and generating helpful explanations of it. Therefore, a more effective way to comprehend the future is to place oneself in the perspective of a specific future state, assume it has already happened, and envision the various pathways in which it could have been created.
The premortem technique applies the concept of prospective hindsight at the start of a project or initiative. Participants are asked to envision a future state in which a project has failed completely and spectacularly. Individuals contribute as many ideas as they can generate regarding the potential causes of the failure. After the session, project leadership can use the collection of potential failure modes to strengthen and improve the project plan from the onset, rather than autopsying the remains after the project meets its demise.
Benefits of a Premortem Analysis
Research suggests that the Premortem Technique leads to improved project outcomes by reducing overconfidence in project plans, by increasing confidence in problem resolution and by increasing general understanding of the project plans themselves compared to other risk mitigation exercises. How this enhancement occurs is rooted in several factors:
- It’s Practical. What’s the best type of risk assessment? The one that we actually use. One of the primary advantages of the premortem is its practicality. It’s quick (1-2 hours), it’s simple (the concept can be readily understood by anyone) and it’s easy (very little planning and no advanced facilitation techniques required, other than our free premortem template below).
- Gives Voice to the Voiceless. Dr. Shingo famously observed that “90% of resistance is cautionary.” When we have concerns, there is a tendency not to voice those concerns until after the fact for fear of being wrong, or for being perceived as a pessimist. The premortem, however, helps to surface would-be dissent in two ways. First, individuals are actually encouraged to explain why an initiative will fail, which removes much of the pain associated with criticality. Most importantly, however, is that the framing of the exercise – a theoretical future state – removes the weight that comes with being critical of reality, making us more likely to voice our concerns.
- Values Independent Thinking. The technique places value on creativity and originality. Because the premortem requires the explanation of an imaginary future state, it encourages participants to think outside the box and consider mechanisms that otherwise may not be discussed.
- Avoids Groupthink. Groupthink is a powerful and pervasive phenomenon that occurs when the pressure to seek consensus and harmony as a group leads to impaired decision making via the stifling of contrary opinions. The premortem technique counters groupthink by actually encouraging the dissenting opinions on an individual level that are often disconsidered or ignored completely by the group.
- Creates Problem Sensitivity. Although not all problems are foreseeable, the premortem technique allows for greater sensitivity by project teams to the initial signs of the problems that do occur. The premortem technique requires participants to consider all possible problems that may lead to the failure of the initiative; the act of thinking through a diverse array of failure modes familiarizes team members with the leading indicators of emerging issues, allowing for a quicker response to problems throughout the project lifecycle.
Free Premortem Template and Facilitator Guide
Conducting a premortem analysis is relatively easy and straightforward if you have the right premortem template. To assist in the planning and execution, I have developed a free, one-page facilitator guide and premortem template which outlines all of the key steps in the process. Find it and more on the Free Downloads page.
Do you have experience conducting or participating in a premortem analysis? Thoughts on how to improve the free premortem template? Then we’d love to hear your thoughts. Share them in the comments section below!