Gilligan’s Island on Pre-Mortem

If you were about to embark on a three hour boat tour, would you take comfort in the Skipper checking the weather before leaving port? I know I would and I’m sure the Professor, Mary Ann and the rest of those on the S.S. Minnow would have appreciated it as well. If only the Skipper had conducted a pre-mortem.

A pre-mortem is a managerial strategy where you role play the failure of a project and work backwards to determine what could be done to prevent and/or mitigate the threat(s). Unlike the traditional pre-project brainstorming session where you ask what might go wrong, a pre-mortem operates on the notion that the project has failed, assessing what did go wrong.

The Skipper’s pre-mortem might have involved imaging a scenario were the boat was stranded on an uncharted deserted isle due to a severe storm. To avoid this from occurring, the pre-mortem would generate such preemptive ideas as getting an updated weather report, packing a working radio, and/or hiring a more capable first mate.

Before we chastise the Skipper for neglecting his due diligence, how many of us have failed because we didn’t thoroughly think through the potential flaws in our plan? Whether it’s because dissent was looked down upon or the team was swept away in it’s excitement, most teams do not spend an adequate amount of time on preventative systems. According to research,

…prospective hindsight—imagining an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.

With minimal effort, you can lead your team in a pre-mortem for your next initiative.

  1. Once the team has an understanding of the project, inform the team that it has failed.
  2. Over the next few minutes, everyone writes every reason they can think of for the failure. There is no room in this exercise for politeness, political correctness, or any degree of self-censorship. This is one of those rare occasions when feedback should be unrefined and brutally honest.
  3. Each team member (starting with you) reads a reason the project failed. There can be questions to gain more details, but no idea is negated or minimized as “improbable.” After all, if it was “probable,” you would have already thought of it. This continues until all reasons have been recorded.
  4. When the session concludes, review the list. Determine the many ways you can strengthen your plan.

A pre-mortem opens up the conversation, allowing everyone a chance to air concerns. Not only does it anticipate potential issues, but the exercise itself shows team members that their input and experience is valued. And the more pre-mortems your team performs, the more tuned in they become to foreseeing and communicating early signs of trouble in other aspects of their role.

So before the weather starts getting rough and your tiny ship is tossed, don’t just rely on the courage of your fearless crew; conduct a pre-mortem. Have an honest conversation to detect the flaws in your plan. It may not find every issue, but it’s preferable to being stranded on an island.