This technique was originally developed by
Gary Klein
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Developed by Gary Klein, the pre-mortem analysis is a tool intended to increase the probability of a project’s success. It is based on ‘prospective hindsight’ – imagining that the project has already failed and then generating plausible reasons for its demise. This is to identify potential risks at the outset, rather than utilizing a post-mortem and waiting until the project has already failed to evaluate it.

In 1989, researchers at Wharton, University of Colorado, and Cornell observed the phenomena known as ‘prospective hindsight’ in a study aptly named ‘Back to the future’. Their research suggested that this method of mentally transporting to the future increased the ability to accurately forecast risks by 30%.

There is some psychological trickery here. When we think about future situations, we’re able to look at scenarios from a more objective, outside-view perspective. This is because our present self views our future self as a stranger. Research shows that a different part of our brain is activated when thinking about the future, the same part of our brain that activates when we think of strangers.

This may work in our advantage for a pre-mortem, but present bias (or ‘future discounting’) contributes to our inability to save money for retirement or sacrifice short-term rewards for long-term gains.

Facilitating a pre-mortem

The goal of a pre-mortem is to transport the team to a future situation in which the decision(s) made produced an unsatisfactory or unforeseen outcome. This gives the team the psychological safety to think negatively about the future situation and incentivize ‘nay saying’

Here is a step-by-step guide to conducting an effective pre-mortem:

  1. Brief the team: Before beginning the pre-mortem, it is important to give the team a general overview of the decision, the context, and goals.
  2. Assume the decision was wrong and produced a negative outcome: It is important to explain to the team that the pre-mortem should not be a normal critiquing session. Instead, it should operate on the assumption that the decision was wrong and throughout the discussion, no one will argue or object to any reasons given for failure.
  3. Have each team member generate reasons on their own: After the team has been briefed on the plan, each team member should independently generate reasons that the decision ended up producing a negative outcome and why (see the nominal group technique for mitigating bias when generating ideas in groups). This can include potential risks that may have been overlooked.
  4. Ask each team members to read their reasons aloud: As the team reads their reasons aloud, record them on sticky notes or in a shared document. Remember, there should be no objections or discussion on the reasons, just sharing. This can also be done async via a survey.
  5. Group feedback and review the list: After all the reasons are captured, review the list and clarify anything the group has questions on. With larger groups, it’s often beneficial to group similar reasons into themes.
  6. Assign probabilities to the potential outcomes: This is an optional step that helps build an outcome tree for the decision making process. The team can run a mini-Delphi to forecast the probabilities of the negative outcomes.
  7. Evaluate the results: To strengthen confidence in the decision, identify potential risks that need a mitigation plan or new assumptions that need to be tested.

Communicating the pre-mortem

Take the time to summarize the pre-mortem to share with the broader team and document it alongside the decision. When the team revisits decisions, this is an important artifact to combat hindsight bias. When looking back at decisions, we tend to think the outcome was inevitable or obvious, even if at the time we might have given the outcome a low probability.

This exercise also builds confidence in teams to combat zero-risk bias and take on more ambitious decisions. When the team feels like risks and potential failure points are understood and evaluated, it’s easier to get buy-in for a high risk, high upside decisions.