A common decision-evaluation tool in business is the project postmortem. Just as a medical postmortem determines someone’s cause of death, the business version typically occurs after a project has “died” or otherwise had a bad outcome.
The goal is to figure out why and learn from the experience.
Project postmortems have something else in common with their medical equivalent: The “patient” is already dead, so whatever is learned - regardless of how valuable for the future - can’t bring the patient back to life.
The purpose of this exercise is to explore the way a decision might unfold more accurately throughout premortems and backcasts implemented in a decision exploration table.
A project premortem is an decision tool in which, before or immediately after making a decision, you imagine yourself at some time in the future having failed to achieve a goal (or having made the decision that resulted a bad outcome). You then look back from the future point to figure out how you arrived at the destination.
Imagining, in advance, why you might fail is a process called mental contrasting. Mental contrasting increases the chances you will achieve a positive result because it allows you to identify obstacles in advance of encountering them.
If you’re like most people, doing a premortem will help you identify some reasons for failure that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Research suggests that when you combine mental contrasting with this type of mental time travel, you can produce 30% more reasons for why something might fail.
A premortem boosts the clarity with which you can glimpse into the future. And the more complete your view of the future, the better your decision-making will be.
When you do a premortem, each team member will come up with 3 to 5 reasons the team failed to achieve a goal or a decision turned out poorly that were within the team’s control, e.g. the decision-making of the team. Each team member will also identify 3 to 5 reasons the team failed to achieve a goal or a decision turned out poorly that were due to luck or the decisions of others outside of the team’s control.
For each item, each team member should also take a stab at the probability each of these factors occured.
The companion technique to a premortem is known as a backcast. When you do a backcast, you imagine and work backward from a positive future.
Together, as part of a decision exploration table, premortems and backcasts show you an integrated picture of the future. The premortem reduces the natural tendency toward overconfidence, the illusion of control, and other cognitive biases that cause you to overestimate the chances that things will work out. The backcast evens out the view if you are pessimistic in nature or under-confident.
Remember, decisions are predictions of the future. The more you focus on what can happen - and why - the more motivated you’ll be to seek out new information, be open-minded to different perspectives, identify creative alternatives, and get a clear view of the things outside your control that can influence the outcome.
In addition to improving decision quality in these ways, a decision exploration table, by incorporating multiple views among the team, captures a greater variety of potential futures and accesses the outside view.
Finally, a decision exploration table can help you plan in advance for what to do when things go wrong (or how to capitalize on when things go right).
Some quick definitions:
Premortem - Imagining yourself at some time in the future, having failed to achieve a goal, and looking back at how you arrived at the destination. Backcast - Imagining yourself at some time in the future, having succeeded at achieving a goal, and looking back at how you arrived at that destination. Things within your control (skill) - Your own decisions and actions or, as is often the case in a business setting, the decision and actions of your team. Things outside your control (luck) - In addition to luck, the decisions and actions of people you have no influence over.
Now given the above definitions, you can start filling out your decision exploration table to help you figure out what might lie in the path to you and your team achieving your goals. In each step of this exercise, there is a column for you to enter the likelihood that any of the reasons for success or failure may occur. For each section, you can fill out 3-5 items.
If you are a team meeting facilitator, have each team member make a copy of this doc and do the exercise individually. Then collect all the answers and lead the discussion in .