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Blog February 22, 2018

The Power of the Pre-Mortem

Image of basketball team being coachedRevealing Planning Hazards and Organizational Norms through a Simple Exercise

Imagine this: a basketball team does something they have never done before - they qualify for the NCAA tournament after a magical run of upset wins in the latter part of their season. They finish the year as one of the best 32 teams in the country. The success is unprecedented for this team, but not a total surprise. It was the result of an impressive combination of year-to-year planning, off-season preparation, team commitment, coaching, in-game execution, and resilience.

Fast forward to the following year. Expectations have changed significantly from the previous years. Instead of just making the tournament, the team, fans, and pundits are looking for them to be one of the final eight teams. This seemed justified as all the key players returned and they seem to be on an upward trajectory. They start the season ranked among the country's top teams, but after a handful of losses to unranked teams, it becomes clear they are not going to be able to fulfill their lofty expectations. By the end of the season, they have as many losses as wins. Everyone associated with the team is disappointed and asking the question, "How could this have possibly happened?"

The overly simple answer: Continuity Bias. Since the current coach arrived the team had won more games in each season than it had won the season prior. The idea is continuing the current trend, so those associated with the team believed that the previous year's improvements would carry on. Because of their biases, the coaches and players did not question their approach, or give an open, critical review of everything that could go wrong during the year and then take steps to mitigate those possible problems. They did not even consider all the minor factors that had contributed to their special season. Instead they acted like they had reached the summit and now could relax. But what if instead, they had gotten together before the new season began and figured out what would cause them to fall off the mountain in the upcoming year? How would the season have turned out if they had planned their devastating fall via a pre-mortem?

Like this team, we all are involved with efforts that require planning, preparation, team commitment, coaching, execution, and resilience. We also encounter a host of biases, certainly more than just the continuity bias. For instance, if you hang around people who sponsor or lead projects you have observed that those people are almost always optimists. Which is another way of saying they have an optimism bias. Generally, that is a very good thing, because without it most projects would never get started. The downside of an optimism bias is that it can delay critical conversations because team members on a project will suppress their doubts until they feel safe in questioning a project's success. Some projects run the further risk of having a sponsor who's also a subject matter expert (SME). So, on top of the optimism there's also a SME bias, which puts the rest of the project team and planners in a situation where they defer to the SME for a longer period than is ideal at the start of a project.

These are just a few of the biases that get projects off to a poor start. Some other examples that factor into project planning include:

o The Present Bias - This is where planners focus on what is known (vs. unknown). In this situation, there's a high level of confidence in the need to make changes based on current operational factors versus taking a broad view of strategic factors that involves industry research and perspectives from both inside and outside the organization. This is often associated with organizational norms where being reactive to pressing issues is expected.
o The Sunk Cost Bias - Here the prevailing thought is that the organization has already gone a significant distance down a certain path in terms of a technology or business strategy, and so changing plans would mean the loss of all the resources already put toward those efforts. In other words, losing the value of the sunk costs.
o The Getting Project Approval Bias - This has to do with project leads who are more focused on getting a project budgeted and approved because they are confident that the project is essential and will "work out" once it gets started.
o The Project Won't Get Cancelled Unless There are Major Overruns Bias - In this case, no one in charge is very serious about staying on time, within budget, and keeping to planned scope because they don't expect to be held accountable.

Early in the life of a project, there are always biases at play that will mask doubts and risks about the organization or the project. But as a team, you want to understand these risks as early as possible so that the impact on the project, and the effectiveness of the change plan is managed. At some point, the optimism bubble must get popped, the sunk cost belief disabused, or the continuity bias halted, else the project goes off the tracks. The earlier these critical reviews happen the less painful they are. So, it falls to either the project manager or change manager to enable the critical discussions. They just need to know how to go about conducting a "Pre-Mortem."

A pre-mortem is for the most part quite simple. The exercise pulls together key project stakeholders with both a high-level of influence on and understanding of the project. Participants are asked to look a year into the future after the current plan has been implemented. In that future place, they imagine that the project outcome is an utter failure. They take a few minutes and write a brief history of how that failure came to happen.

With the pre-mortem approach, the biases begin to be addressed by bringing a range of views into the conversations. At the same time, people risks on a project are identified early. Participants find this exercise energizing. By giving the group permission to answer the question, "why did (will) it fail?" you tap into the natural skepticism that people suppress at the project outset and release concealed worries. Results directly inform much of the change management and risk management plans.

For most, the challenge is simply to hold a pre-mortem. It takes nerve to tell highly optimistic sponsors - or for that matter players and coaches still in the afterglow of a great achievement - to forget past successes or the promise of future benefits. Next year, they could fail miserably if they don't analyze all the things that can, and will, go wrong.