During a recent trip that involved a lot of flying, I carried two books with me - Scaling up Excellence by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao and Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Both books are must-reads for anyone interesting in building great organizations but in this note, I wanted to highlight one very interesting concept in Sutton and Rao’s book.
Towards the end of their book in chapter 8, Sutton and Rao talk about a concept that got my attention - they call it the pre-mortem. This concept is based on psychologist Gary Klein’s work to help project teams avert big failures.
To understand this concept, let’s first look at post-mortems. Post-mortems are typically conducted at the end of projects (usually when they fail, though not always) to discuss what worked, what didn’t and what should be done differently. By learning from past mistakes, the hope is to increase the odds of success of future projects. Such post-mortems with their hindsight is 20/20 slant bring up interesting insights and often times point to issues that team members knew all along would lead to failure.
What is a Pre-Mortem?
The idea of a pre-mortem is, could we play mind tricks to make us believe we reached the end of the project even before it started (time travel to the future) and be able to discuss what worked, what didn’t, etc.
Sutton and Rao describe their process: before starting a big project, ask the project team to assume that the project is completed i.e. time travel into the future. Split the project team into two groups. Tell one group that the project was a complete success and have them jot down thoughts on why the project succeeded. Tell the second group that the project was a failure and have them jot down thoughts on why the project failed. Finally, have both groups present their “findings”. This exercise enables the overall team to better understand what could happen and be able to account for potential issues before starting the project, which increases the odds of success. However, if the insights gained from this exercise seem quite difficult to handle then it is best to go back to the drawing board. This is a lot easier to do before starting the project.
As I reflected on the idea of projecting forward to illuminate the path forward, I realized that some folks already do this although in a slightly different manner. Product managers (we used to do this at VMware) are taught to write a press release of the product before any code is written. This forces PMs to better understand the pain point, market size, unique features/key differentiators and why customers would actually buy this product. The theory is that you can then work backwards to build the right product. It is far easier to iterate on a press release than on a product or even on a prototype. See here for a writeup on Amazon discussing this for their products.
Another example I came across recently is a write-up that discusses the life lessons from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. It’s worth a quick read and pay special attention to lesson 12 where Buffet and Munger talk about “inverting” to document all the ways in which something could go wrong so they can address these issues early on. It’s interesting to see how they project forward and work backwards.
Applying Pre-Mortems Elsewhere
I had the great privilege of meeting Dr. Rao, who happens to be from the same town in India where I grew up. Small world indeed! When I met up with him recently, he mentioned that this pre-mortem trick could be interesting to perform on people as well. Fascinating! Imagine doing this before you hire a candidate. Half the interview team could write about why this candidate would be massively successful while the other half could write about why this candidate would not be successful. This makes for a much more interesting and insightful roundtable discussion and as the hiring manager, you have a lot more insight into what you should watch out for or things you could do to make the employee successful.
Or, imagine doing this as part of the promotion cycle. Set the stage by asking, say, 10 employee to assume the person is one year into the new role and have two groups of five write down why this person succeeded or failed in the new role. Then share this feedback with the candidate in the “hot” seat so the person is more aware of what needs to be done to be successful.
If you were to extend this concept further, you could imagine doing this exercise in lieu of the 360 degree reviews that some companies do for their executives and senior people. Or, maybe even in lieu of the dreaded annual performance review. When this is done well with the intent on helping people, the richness of the insights that come through is game changing in empowering employees to reach their potential and increasing their odds of success.
Co-Founder & CEO