Imagining a future

Pro-mortems and pre-mortems are a simple and highly effective technique for teams to employ “prospective hindsight” and imagine a future that has already happened. Research indicates that this type of thinking helps us prepare for the future. It helps us to maintain vigilance against cognitive biases that may lead to over-confidence and being blind to potential train-wreck indicators.

Pro- and pre-mortems can help us see new insights into our activities – they can be a valuable tool in a risk toolkit to help us to work out how to take and manage risk.

What are pro- and pre-mortems?

First, some context for you. I first found out about pre-mortems in 2007, when I read an article by the cognitive scientist and author Gary Klein in an Insight column of the Harvard Business Review (see this link for the article – note: access restrictions may apply). Since this time, I have used this technique many times in a variety of situations with various teams – to imagine future project outcomes and success or failure of internal business initiatives and business objectives. Over the years I have stitched pro- and pre-mortems together with other risk tools to help teams to make risk-informed decisions.

In apro- or pre-mortem review, teams “project themselves” into the future and imagine that they have finished their mission. This future is either extremely positive (a pro-mortem) or a complete fiasco (a pre-mortem). Unlike a typical critiquing session in which team members are asked what might or couldhappen (which is a perfectly good exercise to undertake, I hasten to add), a pro- or pre-mortem puts people in the position where they imagine an outcome, positive or negative, hashappened, and focuses on why it happened this way. I have leveraged the terminology used Dr Klein, who I had the pleasure of interviewing about decision-making in May 2018, in calling these exercises pro-mortems and pre-mortems.

Team members are asked to generate plausible reasons for the imagined highly successful or disastrous outcome of their project or initiative in a methodical way. We drill into these reasons to understand trigger points that drove the direction of this path. While we know that we cannot predict the future, this prospective hindsight can help us to spot trigger points (good or bad) as activities unfold for real.

Running a pro-mortem or pre-mortem review

Done well, it is a valuable aide to decision-making and seeing insights into how to achieve your objectives. Here are some tips to holding good reviews:

  1. Don’t make it too long an exercise

Aim to get it done in two hours. This ensures people can focus fully in an energised session. To make it seem real, you may wish to help people “get into the future situation” by providing mock-up examples of their initiative being in a newspaper headline, or handing them a mock post project review report (which is either glowingly positive or extremely critical).

  1. Engage “System 2 thinking” to think through what could happen

To think carefully about potential outcomes, we need to use our “System 2” thinking, which has been brought to popular attention by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking fast and slow. As Kahneman says, you need to pay attention and focus properly when using your System 2, otherwise you will not optimise your outcome.

  1. What’s your risk appetite and tolerance (do you really know?)

Think about your appetite and tolerance for risk when you undertake a pro- or pre-mortem. It could help you to understand how quickly one or a number of risks could materialise which go beyond your appetite or tolerance.

  1. Our world is complex – can you understand it better by modelling it?

Our world is arguably more interconnected than before, and this adds to the challenge of understanding our risks. In this interconnected and increasingly digitised world, many risks and uncertainties that we contend with cannot be evaluated and managed by themselves in isolation to other risks and events. A pro- or pre-mortem might help you to understand some of these complexities.

For example, if it is worthwhile, you may wish to develop a pro-mortem and/or a pre-mortem into a decision tree, to articulate pros and cons of what could lead to very good or very bad outcomes in a chain of events.

Seven steps for running an effective review

Here is one way of running a review which combines both a pro- and a pre-mortem, although you may only want to focus on one of these reviews:

  1. Preparation: Convene the team. You can either use Post-it notes and wall posters, or provide plain paper and a whiteboard / flipchart. Perhaps provide them with a mock-up of a news story about the initiative they are working on going (A) really badly and (B) really well.
  2. Imagine a terrific success (a pro-mortem): The facilitator starts by asking the team members to imagine complete success –in fact, over-achievement. The question is “What could have caused this?”
  3. Generate reasons for this imagined success: Each team member writes down the successes they can foresee and the reasons for them occurring, having 5-10 minutes of quiet time to generate their list. The facilitator gives them Post-it notes for people to stick them onto the success chart.
  4. Now, imagine a fiasco (the pre-mortem):The facilitator starts by asking the team members to imagine a failure. Not just any failure, but a complete failure to achieve success. The question is “What could have caused this?”
  5. Generate reasons for this imagined failure: Each team member writes down the failures they can foresee and the reasons for them occurring, having 5-10 minutes of quiet time to generate their list. The facilitator either gives them Post-it notes for people to stick them onto the failures chart.
  6. Consolidate the lists and agree trigger points: Invite each person to talk through their thoughts. Discuss and agree trigger points to watch out for throughout the project / initiative, and agree to unhesitatingly raise a hand if anyone sees any of these trigger points occurring.
  7. Revisit the plan: Address the items of greatest concern / commonality across people, hold a discussion and decide whether some items warrant further action and review.

Team environments are powerful and positive forces that create a can-do attitude and environment to work in and commit to achieving objectives. As we speed onwards towards our path to the end of the rainbow, it helps to reflect with prospective hindsight about possible outcomes, even ones that we do not think will happen (and our cognitive biases often blind us against).

Using the pro- and pre-mortem technique is a way to help us look at plausible top and bottom ranges of potential outcomes. Taking the time to press pause and project ourselves into the future, to think about what could go extremely well or badly wrong, can help us be ready to respond to different scenarios that arise, and to ensure we have stress-tested resilience measures in place to safeguard value. It can help us to be agile, to anticipate possible outcomes (including outcomes we do not expect) and to ensure we remain ready to respond in a pro-active manner to changing circumstances as we strive to achieve our objectives in the best way we can.

Gareth Byatt is principal consultant at Risk Insight Consulting. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the official position of IRM.




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