1: “I have bad news,” the CEO tells the packed conference room. “The project has failed spectacularly. Tell me what went wrong?”

“What?!?” someone says. “But the project hasn’t started yet.”

“Exactly,” the CEO responds. “Our job is to identify everything that could go wrong before the project starts. And then take action now so that those things never happen.”

This exercise is called a premortem. It was designed by psychologist Gary Klein.

2: “In a postmortem, doctors convene to examine the causes of a patient’s unexpected death so they can learn and improve for the next time a similar circumstance arises,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle is the Way.  

“Outside of the medical world, we call this a number of things—a debriefing, an exit interview, a wrap-up meeting, a review—but whatever it’s called, the idea is the same: We’re examining the project in hindsight, after it happened,” he writes.

A premortem takes the opposite approach.  

Before we start, we envision what might go wrong in advance. Why? “Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons,” Ryan observes. “Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish.”

The old expression: “Man makes plans. God laughs,” comes to mind. The reality is our “plan” and how things actually turn out seldom resemble each other.  

“Yet we constantly deny this fact and are repeatedly shocked by the events of the world as they unfold,” Ryan writes.

“If only more people had been thinking worst-case scenario at critical points in our lifetimes, the tech bubble, Enron, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the real estate bubble might have been avoidable,” Ryan observes. “No one wanted to consider what could happen…

“And the result? Catastrophe.”

3: The term “premortem” is new, but the concept is not. The Stoic philosopher Seneca would make a plan and then review everything that could go wrong or prevent it from occurring.  

“What if . . . Then I will . . . What if . . . Instead I’ll just . . . What if . . . No problem, we can always…”

“And in the case where nothing could be done, the Stoics would use it as an important practice to do something the rest of us too often fail to do: manage expectations,” Ryan writes.

“Because sometimes the only answer to ‘What if ?’ is, It will suck but we’ll be okay.”

Sometimes people are going to make errors. Sometimes our plans are going to get messed up. Not always. But lots of times.

If we are always surprised when this occurs, we are likely to be miserable. Instead, we reflect on what happened. Learn from it. And iterate accordingly so we can be successful in the future.

Conducting a premortem, we can learn in advance. “The only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong,” Ryan writes. “It’s better to meditate on what could happen, to probe for weaknesses in our plans, so those inevitable failures can be correctly perceived, appropriately addressed, or simply endured.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection:  Consider a big, upcoming project. Think about all the things that could go wrong. Consider all the actions that can be taken now to prevent these errors and mistakes from happening.

Action: Organize a premortem with my team before the launch of an upcoming project.

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