The Premortem, or how foresight can also be 20:20

[Note: I shared this mental model with my email subscribers on Feb 5, 2017. If you want to receive a new mental model every week, join the club.]

Premortem

Or as more ancient stoics said, “Premeditatio malorum”. Or “premeditation of evils”.

 

What it is:

We’ve all heard of the postmortem in business. When something goes wrong, all the decision-makers get together to diagnose what happened. And learn how to prevent it from happening again.

In theory, at least.

What really happens though, is an advertisement for hindsight bias. Everyone suddenly remembers how they “always knew it wouldn’t work”.

As Amos Tversky said, “The writing may have been on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible?”

A premortem asks the same question as a postmortem, but before you embark on your endeavor. “It’s two years from today, and our plan has been implemented. But it’s been a disaster. What went wrong?”

Explicitly going through such a thought experiment can help avoid the overconfidence and groupthink that team decisions can suffer from. We all love “playing the devil’s advocate” – here’s an executive license (and order) to do so!

Examples of premortems / thought experiments:

Here are a few examples of thought experiments to try.

1 Year from Now:

  • We haven’t hit product-market fit yet. We took too long to launch our initial product. What features could we have left out?
  • Half our customers didn’t renew their contracts. Why? What went wrong?

 

3 Years from Now:

  • Our startup has just shut down. We just couldn’t hit a growth trajectory. What are the reasons for this failure?

 

Rules to follow:

  1. When you’re making a big decision, make sure you think about what could go wrong. And protect against it. Don’t only think about what happens when the plan works – you’ll fall prey to the focusing illusion.
  2. Every few months, revisit and repeat the premortem. Have you covered for the main risks? Have any new risks opened up?

Further Reading:

 

Linked to: Focusing Illusion, Hindsight Bias

Filed Under: Decision-making

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