Premortem as a Decision-making Tool

Premortem is a pre-event or pre-launch meeting where members articulate and anticipate anything that may cause an initiative to fail.

The technique is a decision making tool developed by Dr. Gary Klein that was intended to improve a plan by removing overconfidence and reducing errors.  In anticipating problems and worst case scenarios, the company can prevent financial and/or reputation risk or other complications.  This includes avoiding time wasted firefighting an issue or a situation that could have been anticipated and prevented had more attention been given to validating each step of an initiative. 

People have a tendency to fall in love with their “plan” especially if they had spent some time working on it.  People also choosing to do what is familiar, based on past experience or past patterns learned, even when context has changed or already showing signs of change.  Behavioral economists use several terms for this such as self-serving bias, optimism bias, confidence bias, my side bias, plan fallacy and attribution error. It is like a “cut and paste”  mentality when decision making is done quickly by an extremely busy (or sometimes lazy) entrepreneur, organization executive or project manager.  It becomes difficult to see what can go wrong because it is painful to admit that your beautiful brilliant idea is not perfect.

Often we find marketing practitioners present a single business plan without preparing contingencies for other possibilities, perhaps due to time pressures or blind spots.  It would be wise for recipients of plans to insist on knowing what other options were considered, consistent with the principle of selectivity in evaluating a plan. For instance, in the Market-Driving Strategy workshop of Mansmith and Fielders Inc., participants are taught exactly how to present at least eight different options before shortlisting their chosen one. 

Premortem is the opposite of post mortem.  Post mortem as we know is evaluating things after the fact, too late to change or fix things, tucked under “lessons-learned and let’s-not-do-this-again.”  Premortem, as discussed here is like operating on a patient while still possible when the patient is still alive. 

In a premortem, focus is on controllable, not just uncontrollable variables.  This way, the organization is aware of weaknesses, loopholes or barriers as well as impending risks or threats that were not considered before. The team is able to pinpoint possible reasons for potential failure, and can plan to prevent failure with remedies from the insights gained in the exercise. 

Premortem requires a mental shift by welcoming and legitimizing dissent within an organization. Those who are against part or the entire plan are welcome to voice their concerns one by one. A constructive contrarian does not simply find fault with decisions made, but asks questions that might identify overlooked areas.  Others in the project team become their own devil’s advocate by challenging assumptions individually on potential areas for failures, incorporating new elements in the plan before finally acting on the improved plan. 

Gary Klein, cognitive psychologist and author, said it best about the need for premortem “The more central the belief is to our thinking, the harder it is to give up. These core beliefs anchor our understanding. We use them to make sense of events, to inquire, and to arrive at judgments about other ideas. And so we are much more likely to explain away any anomalies rather than revise our beliefs in the face of them.”

Do you have this kind of thinking in your organization as Gary Klein described?  Do a premortem.

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Josiah Go is chair and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. His areas of specialization include, among others, market-driving strategy, profit strategy, business model and innovation. 

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