Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pre-Mortem to avoid Post-Mortem in Strategic Decision Making


We see it all the time. A project plan finalized after much back-slapping ending in smoke. A plan adopted by the top management and supported by key decision makers are not full proof. One reason is that people are reluctant to speak up about their reservations during the planning phase. People generally find it risky to raise impolite or politically incorrect objections to a plan proposed by their bosses and embrace the safety of silence. By making it safe for dissenters who are knowledgeable about the undertaking and worried about its weaknesses to speak up, we can improve a project's chances of success.


Research conducted  by Deborah J. Mitchell, Jay Russo, and Nancy Pennington, from Wharton, Cornell and  the University of Colorado respectively, found that prospective hindsight - imagining that an event has already occurred - increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by as much as 30%. This method of prospective hindsight has an interesting name – pre-mortem, which helps project teams identify risks at the outset.

A pre-mortem is the hypothetical opposite of a post-mortem. A post-mortem in a medical setting allows health professionals, police and the family to learn what caused a subject's death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A pre-mortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the pre-mortem operates on the assumption that the patient has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members' task is to generate plausible reasons for the project's failure.

A typical pre-mortem 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 impolite. For example, in a session held at one start up Education Company, an executive suggested that a project to attract the issues of armed forces had failed because interest waned when a particular executive was transferred. Another pinned the failure to a changes in the policy in Army.

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.

In a session regarding a project to make state-of-the-art computer algorithms available to military air-campaign planners, a team member who had been silent during the previous lengthy kickoff meeting volunteered that one of the algorithms wouldn't easily fit on certain laptop computers being used in the field. Accordingly, the software would take hours to run when users needed quick results. Unless the team could find a workaround, he argued, the project was impractical. It turned out that the algorithm developers had already created a powerful shortcut, which they had been reluctant to mention. Their shortcut was substituted, and the project went on to be highly successful.

One of the objections to this method is that it may lead to situation where objections cloud the original plan and the project is abandoned. Here the argument is that if the objections are indeed too strong may be the project is worth abandonment. However, experience show that in 78% of the time original plan is modified for the better and not abandoned.


What pre-mortem does and does it pretty cleverly - it incentivizes dissent. It also places creative objections on the table to a plan or project. This allowance of dissent and objections ‘robustifies’ the decision making process. It also reduces the kind of ‘bash on regardless’ attitude often assumed by people who are overinvested in a project. Moreover, in describing weaknesses that no one else has mentioned, team members feel valued for their intelligence and experience, and others learn from them. The exercise also sensitizes the team to pick up early signs of trouble once the project gets under way. In the end, a pre-mortem may be the best way to avoid any need for a painful post-mortem.

Acknowledgement - This article is inspired by the works of behavioral economist, Gary Klein who is the inventor of the term pre-mortem.

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