Time For a
Holly G. Green
In most organizations, it’s common practice to conduct
“postmortem” or lessons learned review sessions upon completion of
major projects. If the project achieved its goal, management
questions typically focus on what went right. What did we do well?
How can we sustain this success? What could we improve to make the
outcome even better?”
If the project failed to meet expectations, the postmortem
tends to focus on what went wrong. Where did we get off track? How
and when should we have adjusted? What can we learn from this
Postmortems play an important role in improving our
businesses. But in today’s world, they may not be enough. I
believe the time has come for leaders and managers to start engaging
in “premortems.” In other words, to conduct the review process
before embarking on major projects or initiatives.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess to borrowing the
term “premortem” from a McKinsey Quarterly Report
article entitled “Strategic Decisions: When Can You Trust Your
Gut?” In the article,
Daniel Kahneman and psychologist Gary Klein debate the risks and
rewards of senior executives using their intuition to make key
Not only is the
article a fascinating read, it also supports one of my core beliefs
that today’s leaders and managers need to slow down in order to go
fast. One good way to do that is by asking postmortem-type
questions before, rather than only after, the fact.
Klein recommends gathering the project team and saying,
“We’re looking into a crystal ball, and this project has failed
miserably. Everyone take two minutes and write down all the reasons
why you think the project failed.” This gets people to voluntarily
engage in devil’s advocate thinking before the project gets started.
What’s the value in conducting a premortem?
For starters, it can identify potential problems that
otherwise would not have surfaced until they caused major damage to
the project. It can also change the dynamics of the decision-making
process for the better. Rather than trying to avoid conflict and
reach consensus as quickly as possible (a common cause of ill-fated
decisions), people actively look for contrarian ideas to bring to
In most cases, problems identified during the premortem won’t
cause the demise of the project. More likely, they will cause the
project to get tweaked in ways that will improve its chances of
success. For the amount of time invested, a premortem is a
low-cost, high-payoff activity. It is a simple way to slow down
(just enough) to get it right versus go fast and do it over.
The article also suggests going through a checklist before
approving any major strategic decisions. This may seem like
focusing on the details rather than the big picture. But in this
case, the checklist focuses on process rather than content, thereby
keeping it at a high-impact level. According to Kahneman, the
checklist should include:
Quality of the
information. Is the data coming from multiple independent
sources or just one source saying the same thing in different
process. Did the team engage in honest, open debate, or did it
engage in “groupthink” in order to avoid conflict?
deference. Did the leader’s opinion unduly influence others in
a certain direction?
Did the group accept the data without challenging it? Was there
a rush to achieve consensus that might have caused key elements
to be overlooked?
To this I would add:
testing. What assumptions about our customers, our market and
our industry did we bring to this project? Are they still valid?
Do we need to update any of them?
scan. What has changed in our industry/the world/with our
competitors in the past three to six months? What has changed
outside our industry that might impact how we serve our
Making stuff up
(MSU) test. What are we making up about this project? What
voids of information are we filling in? What decisions are
based on our MSU’s (making stuff up) rather than on hard data?
In today’s business environment, customers, markets, and
entire industries can change overnight. If you get it wrong the
first time, you may not get another chance.
Obviously, you can’t have all the information every time you
make a strategic decision. But by taking the time to identify what
could go wrong before launching a project, you can have contingency
plans in place before you need them. You can practice the thinking
that might be required quickly if challenges arise.
“Slow down to go fast” may sound counterintuitive, but it
works. You can (and should) still conduct postmortems after the
fact. But you will get a lot more bang for your buck by adding a
premortem into the mix.
Read other articles and learn more about
Holly G. Green.
[Contact the author for permission to republish or reuse this article.]