This week’s blog post is by Patty McDermott
I’m lucky enough to have learned PreMortem from its creator, Gary Klein… twice!
Twenty years ago as a new college graduate in an exciting project kickoff, I remember diligently taking notes when the company owner, Gary Klein, took the meeting in a new direction. He described a future in which the project failed and asked us to come up with reasons for the failure. I felt pressure to say something insightful to show that I belonged in that conference room. The project details are long forgotten but I remember Gary’s approach getting everyone talking and bringing us together as a team.
Fast forward two decades. Gary Klein was teaching a PreMortem Masterclass at the 2022 Naturalistic Decision Making Conference in Orlando, and I jumped at the chance to participate.
Like a true mastermind trainer, Gary demonstrated his point in the Masterclass so naturally that we didn’t even realize it was part of the lesson. Gary gave us some time to review the workshop agenda before asking if the audience had any questions or comments about the plan.
I will admit that I noticed some oddities in the order of events but passed it off as, “Gary must have a reason.” Gary then asked if anyone had silently questioned the agenda in their head. Hands shot up, mine included. The audience noticed several things that could have impacted the understandability of the class. Yet none of us said a word when asked. As Gary summarized, “People don’t speak up when they have a chance. That is why we need a PreMortem.” Mind. Blown.
People hesitate to speak up and point out weaknesses for many reasons, ranging from social pressure, lack of time, to wanting to keep things harmonious. The power comes from turning the dynamic on its head – changing the mindset to focus on critical thinking. Tap into people’s desire to be insightful and show off their cleverness. I think back to that conference room at the start of my career and remember fizzing with excitement of sharing an idea that no one else had considered.
Since Gary created the PreMortem over 30 years ago, it has been adopted all around the world. Here at MITRE, the PreMortem is one of ITK’s most popular tools. To help you get the most of it, check out these six tips.
- The PreMortem can be done in less than 30 minutes. You don’t have to dedicate an entire hour to get impactful results.
- When setting up the exercise, be playful. Describe a scene in which you have a crystal ball. The crystal ball doesn’t lie! By looking into it, you know the [project/tool/event] failed. But it’s not a good enough crystal ball to show you why it failed. Perhaps you need to insert more money to see the reasons for the failure. The point is that you need the stakeholders in the room to fill in the blank and describe the reasons for the failure.
- Give participants two minutes to write reasons for the failure. Ask them to get specific: go beyond answers such as “budget, time, or management.”
- Choose someone to start and go around the room. Only accept new and different answers to keep things moving.
- Write answers in a consolidated list that everyone can see.
- Give participants two minutes to write answers to the query, “What can I do to reduce chance of a fiasco?”
At the end of the session, participants will have used their creativity to list potential reasons for failure. But don’t end on a note of doom and gloom! Getting participants to describe proactive ways to avoid failure will set them up for success. They will leave the session with tangible early warning cues that things may be in trouble. The team can also make choices early on to mitigate problems before they even have a chance to occur.
I hope these tips encourage you to incorporate the PreMortem in your repertoire and help you conduct an efficient and effective session!
(image developed using Midjourney)