Last year I had the opportunity to serve on a National Academy of Sciences committee. We were chartered to help NASA improve its innovation ecosystem, a truly awesome experience. One of my main contributions was to lead several Premortem sessions, where participants imagined a future scenario where NASA has failed completely. As always, the Premortem produced several moments of insight & honesty. It continues to be my favorite tool in the kit.

If you’re not familiar with Premortems, the objective is to build clarity and consensus about what success looks like. Although a lot of the discussion is focused on describing a hypothetical failure (making the description as stark and dystopian terms as possible), the key question in the Premortem canvas is actually “If the only thing we do is ______, that’s a win.” We don’t start with that question, but I always make sure we get to it before the Premortem is complete.

Here’s a short excerpt from the National Academy committee’s report, describing the consensus these groups came to during the Premortems:

…one of the answers that popped up in all three sessions was “to build strong collaborative partnerships with industry and internationally.”


In particular, a number of session participants acknowledged that NASA is no longer the only game in town and argued that the agency’s continued presence as a relevant leader in space and aerospace will thus depend on its role as a collaborative partner rather than an independent actor. One example that a number of participants mentioned is the existence of civilian space companies such as SpaceX that are increasingly accomplishing missions that were previously done by NASA alone. As long as NASA is recognized as a valuable partner in these missions… then the agency will rightfully receive some of the credit for successes in this area.


…three main things that participants identified as being important for avoiding a dystopian future: developing strong partnerships with industry
and internationally, continuing the learning culture at NASA and building on it, and improving communication across NASA and with those outside of the agency. NASA is already doing many of these things, the session participants said, but there is room for significant improvement in each area.

If you’d like to learn more about how NASA used the Premortem and how they answered the “If the only thing we do…” question, or even if you just want to see what NASA’s senior leaders are doing to help the agency improve, check out the full National Academy committee’s report, now available as a free PDF (see the “Download Free PDF” link on the right of that page).