How to do a pre-mortem on your ideas, and make them better before they die
Learning how to navigate the Dilemma Space of your new ideas is a core skill for creatives and leaders alike. It’s not about defending your idea to the death, but making it better thanks to the inevitable conflict that meets most good new ideas.
The following is an adaptation from my 2014 book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen.
As a secondary school teacher, I was a pain in the neck. I was always looking for new ways to engage students described by some crossword-addicted instant-coffee-drinking stalwarts of the teaching profession as “unengageable”. It seemed that every new idea — and plenty that were not new but just different to what the Old Guard expected — was to be met with conflict. It took time to learn how to turn that conflict from an idea killer into creative conflict that helped ideas blossom.
Creative conflict needs a safe space and time to occur — you need to act out the conflict before you release your innovative idea to the world. We call it a pre-mortem.
Key to turning conflict into something creative, is really understanding and empathising with those who don’t know about your idea yet. What are the values that exist today in our community? We call these the “Rock Values”, implying that they are unlikely to move or change any time soon. Comparability, measurability, transparency… These are common values in any schooling environment. Meanwhile, the creative ideas we are brewing will have “Whirlpool Values” at their heart, for example: daring, risk-taking, experimental. Often, the values from these two worlds feel at odds with each other. And if you fight whirlpool values against rock values, the rocks will always win: your ideas will always be changed to the point of being unrecognisable, they whither and, eventually, die.
A balance between the two is where innovation lies: creative ideas that borrow from the heritage of the organisation’s founding values. The pre-mortem is therefore a process where innovation teams head on a to-and-fro journey between these sometimes contradictory Rock and Whirlpool Values, to better understand the potential conflict that might arise, the grey, predictable compromises one might make, and leave space to begin to reconsider how our ideas might evolve further to become not only audacious, but more likely to succeed within the organisation. A pre-mortem is a period of safe reflection to consider all the potential causes for the future death of our idea and give us a chance to take some preventative measures to alter our ideas, and make them more likely to thrive in the real world.
Define the values behind your institution — and your ideas
The underlying values of your organisation will not move fast — attempt to ignore or change them and you will fail as innovations struggle to take their foothold in the organisation. Very often, none of us want to get rid of these Rock Values because they offer useful things to us all: accountability, comparability, transparency, and so on. These Rock Values will be vital to the success, on the ground, of the innovation we have developed, since the people we are trying to engage with the innovation, the people we are trying to help better, have these values engrained in the way they currently operate and think about the organisation. Their very sense of belonging is tied up in those Rock Values.
In one example, Andrée Marcotte, an educator from Laurentides in rural Quebec, noted that her local schools would probably cite the slightly predictable ‘integrity, transparency, recognising everyone’ as Rock Values. But she also discovered through the process that there was a key Rock Value some innovators might glance over: good timing. In her case, she realised that even a great innovation with exciting Whirlpool Values will still fail if the timing during a busy school year doesn’t quite work for the whole staff.
In short, we can test each other’s assumptions about what values actually exist today (Rock Values) and what values we aspire to (Whirlpool Values). If we aspire to a new, Whirlpool Value, then the ideas we generate have to bring about the necessary change to help that value take its place, eventually, amongst the institution’s Rock Values. We can’t just magic up that change.
Whirlpools are exciting, for sure, but also potentially risky, something you can get stuck in. In the same way as a Rock Value is neither good nor bad, the Whirlpool Values of our innovation are not necessarily always ‘good’. That excitement can also be destabilising for people. The taking of a risk, while often celebrated by leaders, is normally the antithesis of the value evoked by that same leader’s five-year plan — everything laid out, in advance, to the nth degree.
From the hundreds of ideas an innovator team might develop, what are the key values they exemplify? What are the connections between those ideas, what values bind them? For example, at Rosendale Primary School, in south London, United Kingdom, we were keen to give students more visibility of their progress in learning, and had developed several ideas that harnessed laptops, iPads and small touch devices. The values behind such ideas included portability, providing personal devices for personal reflections, speedy switch-on of the device, the ability to capture a learning reflection in more than just text, but by camera, audio or video, the excitement of being able to use technology more regularly in one’s learning.
We asked ourselves: Are there any tensions or conflicts in the values between those ideas? Are there any obvious tensions or conflicts between the Whirlpool Values of the ideas proposed and the Rock Values we have already identified from the here-and-now? In this regard, some of our initial ideas had values that were in conflict with the values of the school. First of all, budget: we had no access to technology that we needed, and staff professional development on its use hadn’t been planned or budgeted for either. Second there were conflicts in the values between some of our ideas: we wanted students to have a personal means of recording their reflection, but some of our ideas still relied on the teacher recording the evidence of student progress.
These differences fuel the next step with this tool: undertaking a pre-mortem, as we run through all the potential conflicts our Whirlpool Values might encounter with the Rock Values that underpin our institution today.
Pre-mortem: Imagining The Conflict
We talk about ‘creative conflict’ as a means of working out the blemishes on a good idea to turn it into a great idea. It is unlikely that any new idea will ever be accepted by every constituent as perfect and palatable. Yet, this inevitable conflict can lead to a new idea being squashed before it’s had a chance to fully develop. When the conflicts are less seismic but nonetheless persistent, the result is often visible in symptoms such as repeated non-committal meetings, where people walk around ideas endlessly, but nothing ever comes of them. Endless nagging conflict results in innovation becoming nothing more than a series of talking shops. As the authors of Transformative Innovation in Education put it, the team ends up the animal equivalent of another mystical creature, Dr Doolittle’s Pushme-Pullme: an endless to and fro of disagreement and discontent.
The potential for stagnation can be avoided by identifying all the potential conflicts which may arise between Whirlpool Values from your creative ideas and the Rock Values of the institution. In a workshop setting, well before they share new ideas with their colleagues, we ask people to quote the actual phrases that will be uttered as and when people hear of the innovation team’s nascent ideas. These are some real (predictable) examples:
‘We have different needs’
‘This isn’t what I was employed to do’
‘There are no systems in place to cope with this’
‘I don’t have the confidence’
‘I don’t have the training to do this’
‘I don’t want to look needy’
‘It’s alright for the others, they know how to do it’
‘Squeaky wheels get the oil…’
‘I don’t have the time; I’m too busy on [the old way of doing things]’
Each phrase in turn leads to a decision: if we heard that piece of conflict, how might we adapt our idea to meet the point the person is making? That design decision, that change in the ideas you’ve developed already, can go one of two ways: a creative resolution that actually improves the original ideas, or a grey compromise that neither achieves the Whirlpool Values of the innovators nor meets in the long term the Rock Values of the organisation.
Avoid Grey Compromises
Unfortunately, many innovation teams fall for a grey compromise, that is, a compromise that fails to both promote the Rock Values of the organisation and protect those Whirlpool Values that made the innovative idea so innovative in the first place. For example, one-to-one computer rollouts in schools were deemed highly innovative throughout the early 2000s, and today in many environments and cultures the once Whirlpool Value of ‘every child has access to a personal computer’ is now a firm Rock Value, untouchable, not subject to negotiation. Yet even this, an apparent logic to many, has failed to stick in other environments:
Some school systems that ushered in one-to-one laptop programs amid great fanfare have begun to scrap them because of budget cuts; mushrooming maintenance costs; and concerns about how students are using the computers. Other district leaders continue to believe that one-to-one programs are worth the expense and headaches.
Why do some school leaders see laptop programs as scrappable, while others see them as being worth the expense and headaches, as important utilities for learning? The answer is obvious with hindsight — there’s not enough budget to pay for maintenance, for student and staff development in how to harness them responsibly for learning. Had these three elements been brought together in a pre-mortem, we might have designed our laptop programs from the start with far more budget and time allocated for the very elements which would, if left untended, spell an end to the innovation.
It is also possible for a grey compromise to end up safeguarding solely the values of the innovative idea: the lone innovator teacher getting on with things in their classroom but not seeing their ideas replicated across school is a prime example. In the short term it gives the innovator a thrill to see their ideas play out, but in the long term it’s a failure, creating resentment and ill-feeling from the ‘have nots’ who haven’t been able to benefit from the innovation going on there.
Most often, it is the Rock Values that tend to win the day, forcing otherwise Whirlpool Values down into the corner of grey compromise, where the very innovative Whirlpools we sought are watered down beyond all recognition. To pick up the one-to-one laptop example once more, a one-to-one tablet program is an innovative idea, but perhaps balancing the budget is cited as a key priority for the school. The grey compromise here is creating a one-to-one laptop program, for a few classes, using older technologies. It might appear to some as achieving what the innovator was setting out to do, but longer term it’s not, and could, in fact, set back other innovations on the same theme. And it leaves everyone like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand.
A New Zealand facilitator has used this specific technique with schools with whom she is working. The feedback from her teachers shows the impact of breaking down the assumptions and making them clear for all through such a process:
“They all felt that this worked because you got the crap out of the way first. Those thoughts that are hiding normally are acknowledged and accepted as being there and real. But by exposing them, you can’t hide behind them any more, and you can’t use the excuse and get away with it. This chart is going on their wall and others will have a chuckle when someone strays into the compromise area.”
Creative Resolutions –Redefining, Reshaping, Rewriting Ideas
The final task is to reframe your original idea as something that meets the potential conflicts that may arise, but which gives equal billing to both the Rock Values that are vital and the Whirlpool Values that generate the much-needed solution to the problem you’ve been working on. Working out that route to success helps our ideas to ‘soar like an eagle’, and it is a significant creative venture now required. As a New Zealand teacher-leader pointed out from the end of her session:
“Without thinking, they all realised this was going to need collaboration on a big scale to make it work. These guys work in silos — 4 walls, 1 teacher, 30 kids. It was like an epiphany, everyone suggested working in groups, having staff and team meetings, supporting each other, leaning on experts… A really solid outcome from this group who traditionally play it very safe and stick to what they know.”
In summary: what to do next
- Keep ambition high — big ideas are not about feasibility, but audacity.
- Express your big ideas as key results: impact and evidence you’d hope to see, not specific actions you want people to do. Trust your teams to deliver in their own way.
- If you spot big opportunities for ideas, go back and seek out small details too. Big and small together lead to great ideas.
- Try to resist killing ideas on feasibility alone — if the idea is the best at solving the problem you’ve identified, the team will find a way to make it happen.
- Quantity over quality is the attitude required to find a gem of an idea.
- Resist the ‘but’ — stick with ‘yes, and…’ as long as possible. Add to each other’s ideas. Don’t destroy them.
- Can you work out what you’re competing against? What is up against any of your ideas succeeding? How do they differentiate themselves from the status quo? Are you creating something that will be easier to take up than continuing with the status quo?
- What will people throw up against your idea? Can you use this to redefine the idea, improve it for all by making it accessible to everyone?
© NoTosh Publishing, 2019
This article is adapted from Ewan McIntosh’s book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, published by NoTosh Publishing.