Pre-mortem – one way to potentially avoid the untimely death of a plan or project

A devil’s advocate is unpopular anywhere. The premortem procedure gives cover to a cowardly skeptic who otherwise might not speak up.

Richard H. Thaler 2017 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN? edge.org

We may be able to develop a narrative about or make a bet on what we hope/intend to happen in the future. But we know that things rarely work out precisely the way we had planned. Much of the end product is tied up in the process of saying, doing and making, as Holt and Cornelissen point out. Nonetheless, we crave direction and optimism if not certainty. Isn’t that what being a visionary leader is all about?

A recent online article by Richard Thaler, one of the originators of behavioural economics, suggests that some problems and failures might be averted by conducting a pre-mortem, an approach based on “prospective hindsight” and originally devised by Gary Klein.

Conducting a pre-mortem is a simple process. It is assumed that you are somewhere in the future and your project has failed spectacularly. You then ask yourself how and why that failure occurred. This is not a post-mortem or after action review, both of which are valuable of course, but tend to suffer from rose-coloured hindsight. Thaler suggests two reasons why this might work, emphasising that he knows of no systematic study that provides empirical evidence one way or the other. Firstly, he proposes that going through this exercise can overcome any tendencies toward groupthink and overconfidence. Secondly, and perhaps more subtly, starting with the assumption that the project has actually failed tends to generate a greater degree of creativity in thinking about how that has occurred, rather than thinking about how it might fail, say in a risk management exercise.

Much like the recognition of the ante-narratives that are live in an organisation as it moves into uncertain futures and the development of scenarios to articulate possible futures the conscious and transparent conduct of a pre-mortem in relation to specific projects and plans helps to sensitise organisational members to alternative possibilities. It therefore makes these possibilities easier to spot if they occur. It also supports the mindful cultivation and awareness of our “action-guiding anticipations”. It helps if we are more consciously aware of what we are anticipating in a situation or conversation because we are then much more likely to notice when we are struck by the minor deviations and differences and more likely to be aware of our own responses.

Here is what Daniel Kahneman has to say about this approach:

So conducting a pre-mortem can be a wise investment of a small amount of time and a quick way of balancing the ever-present paradox of the need for openness and vision and the need not to lose control and failure comprehensively.

Related Practice

A similar, in some ways more sophisticated approach is the Cognitive Edge method called The Future Backwards

Gary Klein has also more recently developed a similar idea which he calls the promortem.


Also published on Medium.