Pre-mortem exercise

You are part of a team that has to analyse a business case and present your recommendations to the entire class. Yikes! Your last group project was a disaster. Right from the beginning, the group was not cohesive. You seemed to do most of the work. While a few others did their bit, a couple of slackers let the whole team down. And on the day of the presentation, a team member was absent, and none of the others in your group were able to fill in for him as you hadn’t practised as a team even once. Your group ended up getting an abysmal grade. So, when the professor announced another team project, you are not really enthused. Do you think there are any chances that this group will function better? Well, yes. While you cannot rule out all obstacles, there is a method by which you can at least minimise the likelihood of failure. This involves conducting a pre-mortem, a term coined by psychologist Gary Klein. Similar to a post-mortem, which doctors conduct to find out the possible causes of death in a patient, a pre-mortem also involves analysing the reasons for a debacle. However, unlike a post-mortem which is done after a patient dies, a pre-mortem is undertaken in the planning stages of a project.

Reasons for failure

In an article published in Harvard Business Review , Klein explains that a pre-mortem is different from “a typical critiquing session”. Instead of speculating on possible reasons why a project might not succeed, participants are told by the team leader to look into the future and see that their project has failed miserably. Team members are then each asked to write down why they think the project collapsed. They are also encouraged to be as candid as possible. Everyone then shares their reasons and the group comes up with a list of things that derail the project.

Next, the group comes up with methods of dealing with various contingencies. According to acclaimed psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a pre-mortem has two benefits. In his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow , he argues that conducting a pre-mortem prevents “groupthink” as team members are asked to come up for reasons for the debacle individually. Second, it coaxes participants to come up with imaginative and ingenious solutions. As a pre-mortem assumes defeat, “it legitimises doubts”. As a result, naysayers who may have otherwise not spoken up have a chance to voice their concerns. Members of the team also become more open to considering different points of view when such an exercise is conducted. Kahneman warns that while a pre-mortem does not necessarily guarantee success, it does reduce the likelihood of a disaster.

Solo projects

What about an individual assignment? Or even examinations? Can you conduct a pre-mortem in such cases? While pre-mortems are typically conducted in business settings, I don’t see any reason why they cannot work for individual projects as well. So, if your exams are two months away (remember, this exercise is useful only if you do it at the beginning of a project), you could potentially imagine the worst. Fast forward four months, when the results are out. You discover that have failed in all subjects. Now, write down some reasons why this could have happened. You started studying too late. You didn’t have the correct syllabus for some subjects. You didn’t solveany practice papers. Your studying techniques were ineffective. You fell very ill a week before the exams. You were so nervous that you blanked out during the exams despite studying. The list could go on.

But once you have generated your own personal list, you can see what steps you might take to prevent each of them. Doing a pre-mortem doesn’t make you a pessimist, but in fact, helps you be better prepared for most eventualities.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA.

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Printable version | May 28, 2022 10:05:30 am |