I recently began using a decision making technique I read about and have found it so immensely useful I wanted to share it with everyone in the social game space. I am reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and although I have not finished it yet have already learned many useful decision making practices. The most significant of these is the pre-mortem.
A pre-mortem is a meeting held before a major decision where all those involved in making the decision imagine themselves six or twelve months after the decision was taken, assume it turned into a debacle, and then explore why it was a disaster. This type of meeting is very effective for many reasons
- Prompts people to raise potential problems. Many times in meetings, people are reluctant to surface issues for fear of upsetting the person championing the issue.
- Counters the over-confidence bias. Research has shown that people overestimate their chances for success, neglecting the baseline data (for example, a baseball player may think he has a 50 percent chance of getting a hit even though the top players only have at best a 35 percent chance of success). The pre-mortem forces people and companies to think about why a decision may not be successful.
- It forces you to think of all the potential problems. Many times, people over-simplify a decision because it is exciting to try new things. The pre-mortem forces people to think through all the ways it can go wrong.
- Forces you to look at key decisions a second time. As much as you try to be objective in your decision making, sometimes the decision process takes on a life of its own. A decision may sound good, then key stake-holders get behind it and all of a sudden you are preceeding down a path without having reviewed it carefully. The pre-mortem forces you to take a step back and make sure the ROI is greater than the risks.
We have only used the pre-mortem at FiveOneNine Games for big decisions, so far, but a recent incident suggests how it is a good technique for virtually any situation. We recently transferred our website’s hosting to a new vendor. The site ended up being down for almost a full business day. If we had done a pre-mortem before going forward with the transfer, I am confident someone would of said it was a debacle because the website went down for several hours. We then probably would of taken steps to avoid this unpleasant situation.
I have found that by conducting a pre-mortem, there are two huge benefits. First, you avoid rubber stamping decisions and take a hard look at whether the decision should be approved. One caveat is that you need to go into the pre-mortem with openness to reversing the decision. Second, even if you decide to continue moving forward, the pre-mortem may raise issues that help you avoid or mitigate the key risks (as in my website example above). It is always better to proceed with your eyes wide open.
7 thoughts on “The Pre-Mortem”
Imagine if this technique had been used by our “homeland security” planners prior to 9/11 …
My guess is Janet Napolitano probably doesn’t read this blog so I won’t feel to safe just yet.
That sounds like a great approach. Do you have any thoughts about the potential for over-correcting? That is, how do you prevent yourself from becoming too conservative when, having raised obstacles and concerns surrounding a worst-case scenario, you become reluctant to make changes?
Obviously there is always a give-and-take between being overly optimistic and overly pessimistic — and it never hurts to identify the weak spots in your plan. At the same time, every plan has weaknesses, so how do you keep (staying with Kahneman) loss aversion from taking over?
There are probably no ready made answers to this question, just a tailoring of the process over time. I definitely think it’s worthwhile, but it may be worth considering in advance whether there’s a way to prevent the process from making you more reluctant to try something than you should be.
I agree, you do not want to become overly pessimistic but in my experience that does not happen. What we try to do is once you have identified the potential problem spots, look at data to support or refute whether the problems are mission critical and their potential impact. I always try to use data to make the final decisions and hopefully the pre-mortem just identifies where additional data is needed.
Thanks Bruce for presenting a super example of hindsight bias. The PreMortem only works if you know in advance that you are about to make a change. So i guess this would require a premortem of the entire US foreign policy for the last 20-30 years…