The Pre-Mortem Technique – Averting Disaster Before It Happens

During my research on how to make better decisions, I came across the pre-mortem in the writings of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. He notes in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), that the pre-mortem technique is valuable in the decision-making process because it has two main advantages.

First, it overcomes “groupthink” that affects many teams once a decision appears to be made. Public doubts about the wisdom of the plan or decision are gradually suppressed and eventually come to be treated as evidence of disloyalty. The suppression of doubt contributes to the group’s overconfidence, which is often a tragic flaw.

Second, it unleashes the imagination of knowledgeable individuals in a much-needed direction: the opposite direction of the decision. The principal advantage of the pre-mortem technique is that it legitimizes doubts and encourages everyone, even supporters of the decision, to search for possible threats not considered in the decision-making process. I immediately recognized it as an excellent risk management technique and went to my project management texts here in the office.

Much to my surprise I did not find anything on the pre-mortem time technique in our library of more than a dozen books on project management and project risk management!

So how does it work?

The pre-mortem is very valuable and easy to implement with your team. The timing is important; to be used once the team reaches a decision or finalizes a project plan.

Step 1: Provide everyone with a pen and paper.

Step 2: Explain to the team: “Imagine that we are one year into the future. We implemented the decision and plan exactly as decided here today. The outcome was a total and complete disaster in every way imaginable. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of the disaster, and most important, explain the reasons for failure.” Obviously, this will require some educated creative thinking, but that’s the point. Figure out what, if anything, is being overlooked – before it is too late.

Step 3: After everyone has written down their thoughts, go around the room and have everyone explain their thoughts. Duplicates are acceptable, because a person’s rationale might differ!

I incorporate this technique into our risk management classes that we deliver regularly. The pre-mortem exercise is always very well received. Participants clutch the flip charts from the group discussion. I see this and ask: “What are you going to do with them?” Invariably, they reply: “We’re going to present our findings to Upper management.”

Most, and we mean 99% of our students, have never participated in such a rewarding experience. This happens in every class! We also teach this technique in our decision-making and leadership courses with similar results. Whether your role involves in Strategic-Planning, Leadership, or Project Management, I strongly recommend the pre-mortem technique and ask that you try it with your teams.

If you would like to learn more cutting-edge techniques about Decision Making, Strategic Leadership, and Risk Management please contact Jim Wynne at Merit Career Development to learn more.

– John Juzbasich, CEO, Instructor, PMP.

Merit Career Development

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