Mind Hack: Increase Your Ability To Foresee The Future By 30%

I’m not a negative person, but here’s something I’ve noticed: projects fail at an alarming rate.  One reason seems to be that people are afraid to speak up during the planning phase.  Unless you’ve fostered a safe environment that encourages people to raise issues, concerns may fester in silence and only become evident when its too late.

A premortem is a technique (pioneered by a psychologist named Gary Klein) for minimizing this kind of risk.  Instead of being held after an event like a postmortem, the premortem is held, well … you guessed it: before.

The purpose of the premortem is to envision that the goal, milestone, or deliverable date has arrived, and that somehow, you’ve missed the mark in a terrible way.

Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah Mitchell (Wharton School), Jay Russo (Cornell), and Nancy Pennington (University of Colorado), found that prospective hindsight increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.

That’s a fancy way of saying that you can increase the chances your project succeeds by mentally (a) traveling to the future, (b) imagining you’ve failed, and then (c) traveling back to the present to analyze your failure.

Here’s how to run a premortem:

  1. Invite stakeholders who are responsible for doing the work — in other words, your pigs. Make sure they are hands-on and have domain expertise.
  2. Ask everyone to project themselves into the future, imagining that the worst has just happened. I’ve found that it is helpful to write a specific date on the whiteboard in big letters.  Ask everyone to close their eyes and imagine that when they open them, it’s now that date.
  3. State that unfortunately, the project has failed terribly.  Give specifics about how people are feeling around the office, and what the mood is like.  Be as detailed as possible to paint a word-picture that resonates with everyone in the room.
  4. Ask everyone to write down all the reasons they can think of that the project failed.  Encourage them to write things that might even be considered impolite or rude.  You want to get all reasons out on the table.
  5. Go around the room and ask each person for one item until everyone’s list has been exhausted.  Write each item on a whiteboard and put a tally next to items if they come up more than once.
  6. Once you’ve exhausted all perceived root-causes, take a break to let everyone’s mind settle.  A break provides a good way to transition back to the present.
  7. Begin to identify what you could do differently starting today (or tomorrow) to avoid the identified failures.  Facilitate a discussion around the items that seem to have the most votes of concern.  Ask what can be done now to mitigate or eliminate the risk.  Try to be as detailed as possible and make a list of the most critical items to follow-up on.

Upon completion, you should have a good list of risks to your project, as well as a variety of solutions and next steps.  Your team should also feel better about having had an honest and frank discussion about their concerns.

What about you? Have you run a premortem? If so, has it helped? If not, do you think it would work for you?

About David Rosendahl
Husband, father of 4, co-founder of MindFireInc, two-time Inc500 software company. I love building things and helping you generate more leads and grow sales predictably.

2 Responses to Mind Hack: Increase Your Ability To Foresee The Future By 302

  1. g2-e8e28e2306c3fde875faf11435c75c6c says:

    This is a great concept David. I might just try it today. Hopefully I won’t scare off my clients.

    • Tan, it should work well if positioned to show the value. Most clients appreciate you thinking ahead for them and protecting them for themselves 🙂 Thanks for the comment. Let me know how it turns out for you.

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