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The Pro-Mortem Method

Creating a blueprint for success

I have recently been using a new tool for making plans, and I want to describe how it works.

Many years ago, I formulated a PreMortem method for evaluating plans. I have described the method in several books, Streetlights and Shadows, and The Power of Intuition, and in a short article in the Harvard Business Review. It has been widely used and I regularly get testimonials from people who have tried it out. For example, Esther Raphael sent me an e-mail on September 23, 2015, “Dear Gary, I used your pre-mortem for the first time on my new team and it was great. Hugely insightful.” The PreMortem method has been covered in a Freakonomics podcast, and by Jason Zweig in his Wall Street Journal column. Beth Veinott and Sterling Wiggins and I evaluated the PreMortem method versus other critiquing techniques and found that the PreMortem reduced (over)confidence more than any of the other critiquing approaches.

The PreMortem would be used in the kickoff meeting for a new project. The idea is that your project team has just gone over the plan the members developed and are getting ready to put into action. Now is the time to review it. In the PreMortem exercise, the team is told to imagine that it is now some time in the future — say 6 months from now. We are looking in a crystal ball, and what we see is terrible. The plan has been a disaster. Each person in the room has the next two minutes to write down all the reasons he/she can think of to explain what went wrong. Once the two minutes are up, the facilitator captures what the team members wrote down — a blueprint for failure.

Why not run the PreMortem in the opposite direction, and create a blueprint for success? Instead of imagining a failure, imagine a triumph. That’s the premise of the Pro-Mortem. The plan has ended, and this time everyone is celebrating. We have traded in the old negative crystal ball for a new, positive version and it is showing a triumph. But that’s all. The crystal ball isn’t giving us any details.

The new task for the team is to write down what has happened to give rise to the celebration. I tell them to imagine that I, an outsider, have conducted an inspection just as the plan was being put into place and then some time in the future I did another inspection. I typically use four years as the future horizon to provide enough time to complete the plan and for it to stabilize and have an impact. So I am coming back in four years.

What will I see that is different in four years compared to what I see now?

That’s the assignment for the team, and they have two minutes to list what will be different. They can’t list vague outcomes, such as better morale or improved performance. They have to come up with observables — concrete outcomes that any outsider, — I can’t see those things. They have to nail it down, concrete items that an outsider such as me would notice.

I have only used the Pro-Mortem a few times, but I have gotten very powerful results. At the end of the exercise, each group looked at its joint product and was inspired by the range of outcomes they had envisioned and the potential impact of those outcomes. They were motivated going into the exercise, but they were super-motivated at its completion. The attitude shifts from “this project would be useful,” to “no one could turn down a chance to accomplish so much.”

Practitioners have described a number of goal-setting methods in the past few decades. My favorite is Mager’s book Goal Analysis. It is no secret that setting appropriate goals is essential for getting valuable outcomes. So the Pro--Mortem method isn’t breaking any new ground in that regard.

Here is what I think is novel about the Pro-Mortem: First, it relies on the same prospective hindsight strategy as the PreMortem. No equivocation about what you would like to see happen. Instead, you begin with the certainty that you have been successful. Second, the exercise is about observable outcomes, not about aspirations. It is about changes that are visible to an outside observer. Third, it uses the PreMortem strategy of two minutes to generate items followed by a compilation by going around the table and getting one item at a time from each participant. The team members work in parallel for the two minutes they have to make their lists, which is an efficient way to gather independent views.

If you have a chance, give the Pro-Mortem a try. And let us know how it worked for you.

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