Overconfidence blinds us
In a study, scientists asked people to make guesses.
For instance, they had to guess how much money movies with Angelina Jolie in the 1990s made at the box office. They were told to give a range of numbers where they were pretty sure the right answer would be in, for example:
"I'm 80% sure that Angelina Jolie's movies made between $30 million and $100 million".
When they were 80% sure, it means they should have been wrong only 20% of the time.
But it turns out they were too sure of themselves: The actual average box office earnings often didn't fit into their ranges, and this happened 61% of the time.
What these researchers also discovered is that people became better at guessing when they were asked to consider the high and low ends of the range separately. The researchers explained this on the basis that we tap different pools of knowledge when we consider success than when we consider failure.
How can we learn to sweep a broader landscape with our spotlights— to attend to the possible mishaps and fortunate possibilities ahead?
Psychologists have created some simple tools for exactly this purpose.
And business people are implementing them more and more.
They're called premortem and preparade.
Projects often crash and burn.
One big culprit is the silence that shrouds the planning stage. People are reluctant to voice their concerns during the critical planning phase. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news or be seen as pessimistic. And when people with knowledge and concerns about a project's flaws hesitate to speak up, it sets the stage for disaster.
This is what Gary Klein tried to fix by developing the 'premortem' method —a superhero tool for spotting risks right from the project's birth.
The method is based on a fascinating 1989 study which discovered that employing prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already happened—can increase the ability to accurately pinpoint reasons for future outcomes by 30%.
If we treat the future as if it has already happened, we become much better at predicting it.
We become 30% better.
This is the essence of a Premortem.
The Premortem technique helps overcome blind spots, bridge short-term and long-term thinking, tame excessive optimism and challenges the illusion of consensus. Importantly, it creates a safe space for everyone to voice their concerns.
In the words of its creator, Gary Klein:
Although many project teams engage in prelaunch risk analysis, the premortem’s prospective hindsight approach offers benefits that other methods don’t.
Indeed, the premortem doesn’t just help teams to identify potential problems early on. It also reduces the kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed by people who are overinvested in a project.
Moreover, in describing weaknesses that no one else has mentioned, team members feel valued for their intelligence and experience, and others learn from them.
The exercise also sensitizes the team to pick up early signs of trouble once the project gets under way.
In the end, a premortem may be the best way to circumvent any need for a painful postmortem.
Easy steps for a premortem:
Before you make that big decision, call a meeting of your team (and outside stakeholders whose insights might be useful).
Ask everyone to imagine that it’s a year later.
Split participants into two groups. Have one group imagine that the project was a total disaster. Have the other pretend it was a roaring success.
Ask each member to work independently and generate reasons, or better yet, write a story, about why the success or failure occurred. Instruct them to be as detailed as possible, to identify causes that they wouldn’t usually mention “for fear of being impolite.”
Next, have each person in the “failure” group read their list or story aloud, and record and collate the reasons.
Repeat this process with the “success” group.
Finally use the reasons from both groups to strengthen your plan. If you uncover overwhelming and impassible roadblocks, then go back to the drawing board.
For more detailed guidance visit the Alliance for Decision Education.
Caution: If you have a look at how pre-mortems are explained on the web, they are missing the most vital ingredient that Gary Klein, the decision-making guru who invented the method, and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman who endorsed it, argue is the reason that works: the temporal shift.
Is not just about gathering stakeholders and asking why the project COULD or WILL fail.
The crucial thing is to transport your team in the future, about one year later, and ask why the project HAS failed.
This temporal shift is what helps your team think more freely, objectively, creatively, and without reservations about possible challenges.
It's the prospective hindsight approach.
Premortem in practice
At a Fortune 50–size company, the premortem session focused on a billion-dollar project to help the environment. One executive said the project failed because people lost interest when the CEO retired. Another said it failed because the government changed its rules, making the project less attractive.
At a tech company, the session focused on a computer algorithm project for the military. Someone who hadn't talked much before mentioned that one of the programs wouldn't work well on the laptops the military uses. This would make it super slow when they needed it to be fast. They said the project wouldn't work unless they found a way around this problem. Turns out, the people who made the program had a powerful shortcut to make it faster but didn't say anything. When they used the shortcut, the project went on to be highly successful.
At the other end of the spectrum there's success. Unanticipated success. To prepare for such an event the Heath brothers suggest to run what they call a "preparade" by considering:
Let’s say it’s a year from now and our decision has been a wild success. It’s so great that there’s going to be a parade in our honor. Given that future, how do we ensure that we’re ready for it?
Once the project or the decision is implemented we tend to move on to the next project. But we should actually look back and assess what went well and what went wrong.
Like in a medical setting, a post-mortem is the autopsy of a project or a decision. It’s a systematic review or analysis that takes place after a decision has been implemented or an action has been taken.
Its goal is obvious: to evaluate the outcomes, assess the effectiveness of the decision or action, and identify lessons learned for future decision-making processes.
And yet, few teams take the time to do a post-mortem before moving onto the next projects.
But without one, we cannot learn. Neither from our failures nor from our successes.
Question for you
What is keeping you from doing a premortem and a preparade on a project or big decision? (Remember: they must be done separately)
What is the 2-minute version of a post-mortem on a puzzling decision you made this week?