Premortem, a simple prospective exercise to make better decisions

A premortem is literally the opposite of a postmortem: an autopsy is not performed on something that has happened to know the cause of death, but possible futures are projected in which an idea, project, product, company… Goes wrong (a death occurs) and the causes of it are analyzed with the aim of avoiding it and, by extension, improving. It would be like hacking something with the imagination of future scenarios.

Although we can hear renowned people talking about it, like Guy Kawasaki or Daniel Kahneman, the inventor was Gary Klein, a research psychologist famous for being a pioneer in the field of naturalistic decision making. It’s an exercise that can be done alone or in a group and is oriented to a specific situation, making it much more effective than the classic brainstorming. In an HBR article, Klein explains in detail how a session works:

A typical premortem begins after the team has been briefed on the plan. The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly. Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure — especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic. For example, in a session held at one Fortune 50–size company, an executive suggested that a billion-dollar environmental sustainability project had “failed” because interest waned when the CEO retired. Another pinned the failure on a dilution of the business case after a government agency revised its policies.
Next the leader asks each team member, starting with the project manager, to read one reason from his or her list; everyone states a different reason until all have been recorded. After the session is over, the project manager reviews the list, looking for ways to strengthen the plan.

Something really interesting about this exercise is that it eliminates biases, specifically the retrospective bias. Human beings are very good at explaining an event that has happened (I recommend that you read Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his Black Swan) and we have a psychological bias that makes us think we already knew it, and blocking us with the forecasts for the fear of failing. This exercise positions us in the future but in a safe and focused way, having to go backwards, thus reducing the level of utopian optimism.

Without a doubt, a simple but interesting exercise in the exciting world of design futures (I hope to publish a series of articles about it shortly).

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