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The Pre-Mortem Technique

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. PreMortemFirst, it overcomes “groupthink” that affects many teams once a decision appears to be made. When groupthink is in effect, the wisdom of a plan or decision is gradually suppressed and eventually come to be treated as evidence of disloyalty. The collective 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 technique for decision-making, risk management and general leadership.

Because this has proven to be of great value, I would like to share this excellent technique with you. The pre-mortem is easy to implement once the team reaches a decision or finalizes a course of action. Here’s what you need to do:

Step back and state the following: “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 complete disaster. Take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.” If someone asks: “What do you mean by a total disaster?” Reply: “In any and every way imaginable it was a total failure.”

Then, explore all the possible reasons that the decision or plan failed. By taking this opposite approach to brainstorming the ideas, your team will likely realize that there are more points that need to be thought through before the plan is implemented.

Merit Career Development incorporates this technique into our leadership, strategic decision-making, risk management and project management classes and it is very well received.  In one recent class the participants clutched the flip charts from the group discussion. I saw this and asked what were they going to do with them? I was told that they were going to present the findings to upper management; they had never participated in such a rewarding experience.

Merit can help guide your team through various tools and techniques to optimize your team’s knowledge, skills and ability with techniques and tools such as pre-mortem and many others. Please contact Jim Wynne at jwynne@meritcd.com or call him at 610-225-0449 to schedule training to learn this and other valuable decision-making techniques.

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