When is the best time to decide why you failed?

After you fail – before you fail – or following the assumption you won’t fail?

May 18, 2017 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner

Today’s topic is – Mortems to manage by:

Pre                                                         Post                                                       Pro

Obviously, mortems have been around forever and per the above – I will explain how you have different flavors to choose from.

One can only imagine the number of generals, CEO’s etc. that found themselves trying to figure out what when wrong – especially when.

  • “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” – German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke
  • “When you are up to your ass in alligators it’s difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.” – Unknown

Just to cut to the chase – I have no magic bullet to share with you – I will just give you some overview of each approach, and a few pro/cons. As with most of our topics the approach you choose – should reflect the circumstances of the situation and your personal wiring.  As always I am just trying to be sure you have more than one arrow in your quiver.

Gary Klein, in particular, has championed the “pre” and “pro” approach although one can’t help but see the influence of Daniel Kahneman.

Lest my introduction suggests these two always see eye to eye – the following debate between Klein and Kahneman is well worth the read.

  • Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut? – Interview – McKinsey Quarterly – March 2010

Why does it matter?

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

I am focusing on this topic for a few reasons.

  • Finally, I cite the eminently important backdrop per Kahneman: “Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters overconfidence.”

What are they?

 “In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly.” – Mark Sanborn

As the root word mortem implies – people think of failure (death) in this context but the better business people will also do an ‘autopsy’ in a success – if only an imagined one in the context of promortem.

  • Premortem
    • Also known as prospective hindsight
    • “The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly. Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure—especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic.”
      • Harvard Business Review Performing a Project Premortem by Gary Klein, Ph.D.
    • According to Kahneman, the main virtue of the premortem is it “legitimizes doubt” and I would add could avoid on ugly postmortem.
  • Postmortem
    • “It’s a discussion (usually at the end of the project) to identify and analyze elements of a project that were successful or unsuccessful. It answers the question, “How’d we do?”
      • Portent “10 Tips for a Successful Post-Mortem” by Kyle Eliason
    • As you might imagine the military were (are?) big proponents of what they call “after action review.”
      • “A leader’s guide to after action reviews.” – September 1993, US Army
  • Promortem
    • In the words of Gary Klein – Psychology Today – The Pro-Mortem Method:
      • “The plan has ended, and this time everyone is celebrating. We have traded in the old negative crystal ball for a new, positive version and it is showing a triumph. But that’s all. The crystal ball isn’t giving us any details.”

“The new task for the team is to write down what has happened to give rise to the celebration. I tell them to imagine that I, an outsider, have conducted an inspection just as the plan was being put into place and then some time in the future I did another inspection. I typically use four years as the future horizon to provide enough time to complete the plan and for it to stabilize and have an impact. So I am coming back in four years. What will I see that is different in four years compared to what I see now?”

“They can’t list vague outcomes, such as better morale or improved performance. They have to come up with observables — concrete outcomes not aspirations.”

What is the landscape

“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” – Jack Welch

I would argue this is not a one size fits all situation – as I said earlier like so many of the topics we discuss under the umbrella of the Business Brain Model – choices/strategies should reflect the people and the circumstances. In any event – don’t overestimate your ability to make rational decisions.

Finally, here are some previous articles you may find relevant:

About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.