How mastering time travel makes for better decisions: Gary Klein’s pre-mortem planning

Written by
Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

Published
04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

In a 1991 paper, professor Stephen Hawking posed the question: “If time travel is possible, why are we not inundated with tourists from the future?” 

Experimenting in 2009, he gave a party for time travellers, complete with Champagne, balloons, and hors d'oeuvres – sending out invitations after the event. “I sat there a long time, but no one came,” he said.

We love time travel, perhaps because it’s unachievable. However, through indulging in imaginary time travel – or prospective hindsight – we can significantly enhance our decision making, projecting into the future to view the outcome of a strategy, and to uncover its blind spots and failings.

Organisations like optimists

The truth is that, while many business plans and strategies have foreseeable flaws, it can be dangerous for individuals to point these out. “Organisations like optimists,” admits psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences. “To be a pessimist about a project very close to the point at which a decision is about to be made is taking a significant risk.”

To legitimise constructive dissent, Kahneman’s favourite de-biasing technique is ‘pre-mortem planning’, devised in 2007 by fellow psychologist Gary Klein. It’s a method that revolves around prospective hindsightwhich research suggests improves our ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by up to 30%.

Under pre-mortem planning, a team or individual aims to improve decision making by:

  1. looking ahead to the point at which a project has failed (is dead, hence post-mortem) 
  2. working backwards to identify what has led to that failure. 

As Klein explains: “We are looking in a crystal ball, and what we see is terrible. The plan has been a disaster. Each person in the room has the next two minutes to write down all the reasons he/she can think of to explain what went wrong. Once the two minutes are up, the facilitator captures what the team members wrote down — a blueprint for failure.”

Going back to the future

The idea is that by imagining that a project has already failed, and beginning with this certainty, we are encouraged to discuss and identify possible threats (and their likelihood/potential magnitude) and to challenge key assumptions. This imaginary time travel:

  • breaks down groupthink and the illusion of consensus. Groupthink occurs when the desire for harmony or conformity results in irrational or dysfunctional decision making. It can be tough to speak out against a plan or strategy developed or championed by a leader. To echo Kahneman, organisations reward optimists. Here, the whole aim is to surface problems.
  • punctures overconfidence and irrational optimism.Most people underestimate the chances of failure. Irrational optimism equates to a warped vision of reality, which is based on desire, not how things actually are, while healthy pessimism can help motivate and prepare for the future.
  • simplifies thinking. It is easier to analyse an event as if it has already occurred and to imagine the detailed causes of a single outcome than to imagine multiple possible outcomes and try to explain why each may have happened.
  • reveals blind spots. Through a collaborative approach and collective intelligence, the process can identify hidden risks and weaknesses and actions needed to address them.

Imagine a fiasco: pre-mortem planning in action

The ideal time to use Klein’s process of conducting a pre-mortem is at the kick-off meeting for a new project, and it involves some simple stages. 

These can be developed into an extended process:

Step 1 – Preparation

Convene the project team (or, if an individual, prepare yourself)

Step 2 - Imagine a fiasco

Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. 

Step 3 - Generate reasons for failure

List all of the reasons the project might have failed. 

Step 4 - Consolidate the lists

Share and prioritise.

Step 5 - Revisit the plan

Address the two or three items of greatest concern, and then schedule another meeting to generate ideas for avoiding or minimising the other problems. 

Step 6 - Periodically review the list

Every three-to-four months to consider problems that may be emerging.

Pro-mortems

Klein also suggests running a pre-mortem with a different imagined outcome: a pro-mortem, where a roaring success is anticipated to create a blueprint for success. As Bob Sutton suggests in Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, you could split a team into two groups, one of which imagines that a project is “an unmitigated disasters; the other a roaring success”, identifying all the possible causes in each case and drawing on the reasons from both groups to strengthen the plan.

While there is a risk that the pre-mortem process could cause so much opposition to a plan that it is abandoned, in most cases it will simply be modified for the better. Team members will feel that they’ve contributed to future-testing projects as best they can. Individuals looking ahead to personal goals and projects will feel confidence that these goals or plans are both achievable and robust. 

And that makes imaginary time travel worth the journey. 

 

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