134 - Visualization Techniques in Decision-Making (Part 2 of 3)



Right then, on to a new week and a new year. Two weeks ago, in issue #132, I wrote about a trait that’s unique to us humans among all animal species: mental time travel. We can move back and forth in time, imagine possibilities, and generally live in the past or the future. This can be good or bad. The bad being that it could make us endlessly ruminate over what we have lost and anxious about what’s to come. Yet, there are ways to turn this very human ability to travel across time into a superpower.

I have written about two specific visualization or time-travel techniques—backcasting and mental contrasting. This week I cover the third and penultimate one: premortems.

Premortems - why you should kill your dream project to save it

For those of us who agree that talking about failure is healthy, a lot many forget to think about failing ahead of time.

Particularly, not many organizations encourage employees to imagine crashing and burning. Project leaders do not close out meetings with ‘Team, we came up with nine reasons our new service launch may fail. Superb job, all!’

But what if they did? Welcome to the land of premortems!

Premortems invert the idea of a postmortem by discussing the (possible future) causes of death while there’s life. You may know of something called After Action Reviews. These are done at the end of the project, and these are nothing but postmortems. Think of premortems as Before Action Reviews. These are done at the start.

Note two things. I said before because it happens before you take action but I also said review, not a preview, even though it happens first. What’s happening here?

What’s the best thing about a postmortem? Morbid question, yeah. The best part is the clarity there is. It is no surprise then that when post-mortem-ing failed projects, we slip into what I think of as retrospective certainty: “I knew there was something wrong” or “If you remember, I had brought up the point of…” We can see everything now. But the goal is to avoid death, remember? So why not nudge people—your team—to voice doubts while there’s a chance to survive?

Gary Klein, the inventor of the premortem who has gone on to apply it extensively at business organizations, has a simple four-step process for it.

1️⃣ Project leader informs the team that the project has been a disaster (Think of it as delivering the news that the patient has died). But she doesn’t know why.

2️⃣ So everyone in the team separately and simultaneously writes down why they think the project failed (the probable cause of death, if you may).

3️⃣ The leader then asks each member to read the top reason from their list and curates all reasons voiced. The leader keeps her own list mutually exclusive and cumulatively exhaustive by framing questions such as ‘Yamini, what have you thought of that no one before you has?’

4️⃣ The leader can end the exercise here with the list and figure out how to evade disaster on her own time but most likely the confidence in the room will be low at this point. Since the point is to avoid disaster, a good last step here involves asking the same group to take another two minutes to write down how they would address the failure points.

Tips to help you replicate a pre-mortem at your workplace:

✔Role: Have the Project Leader do it, not the Project Manager. You need someone with clarity and oversight.

✔Timing: Do a premortem before project execution, not before project planning. You want to have a plan to find holes in. At the same time, it should not be so close to launch that it doesn’t allow you time for correction. Think clearly about what the best time frame may be like for you.

✔Brevity: Have people read out their top reason so that you don’t slowed down by

✔Names: Shreyas Doshi, product leader and a proponent of premortems as a way of preventing problems, understands what makes premortems fun and vivid. So he asks participants to tag each other’s failure points as tigers, paper tigers, or elephants as per their size and threat.

🎩Fun tip: At my first premortem, I was so kicked that I _directed _my CEO and Chairman to imagine all that could go wrong. Like in the manner of how can you not see how obviously great this tool is? They felt awkward, weird. The trick is to make the imagining theatrical. Spend some time thinking of your own script to do so (For example - ‘Imagine it is 6 months from now and you have a crystal ball with you that lets you see clearly into this future time…’)

Organizational optimism is useful. It is what drives people along in the face of uncertainty and pushes them forward in the face of setbacks. It also harms if not paired with negative visualization.

But a dose of reality is of no help if all it makes people feel is helpless. That only makes them run away from it. The beauty of the premortem is in the emotional arc it puts groups or teams through.

👉First, people are asked for their worst fears. That makes them feel heard.

👉Then they start freaking out having heard all the fears in the room. But they see their comrades in arms—the best minds that understand the problems— sitting next to them and thinking hard about how to counter these future problems.

All of this is during the exercise. The best happens after.

👉Now there’s a habit, a culture brewing. People feel okay surfacing doubt. They feel heard talking about their fears. Slowly, the default thing to do once they are worried becomes not to cover it up but to sunshine it. Now—do you see?—the signaling has reversed. Instead of keeping their doubts hidden and projecting false certainty, employees signal value by exposing the nooks and corners of uncertainty.

Every choice we make in our professional and personal lives does two things. It solves the problem we were grappling with and then it turns into something more—it leads to either more problems or more opportunities. Before you freak out, sometimes, these problems are good problems. If you develop a regular workout habit, you now have to pair your workout with an appropriate diet.

The point is that for every meaningful choice before you, there’s always a ‘And then what?’ you can ask to see if the choices you’re making today will lead you to a better life tomorrow. This is called second-order thinking. Premortems, as you may have figured by now, are second-order-positive. Next time round, we’re going to look at the fourth and last visualization / time-travel technique in decision-making: second-order thinking.

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