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Doctors routinely perform postmortems to understand what went wrong with a patient who has died. The idea is for everyone to learn from the unfortunate outcome so that future patients will not meet a similar fate. But, what if you could avoid a horrible outcome before it happened by identifying project risks proactively—before your project derails? Research suggests that the simple exercise of imagining what could go wrong with a given decision can increase your ability to identify reasons for future successes or failures by 30%.Mitchell, D. J., Russo, J., & Pennington, N. (1989). Back to the future: Temporal perspective in the explanation of events. Journal of Behaviorial Decision Making, 2, 25–38. A “premortem” is a way to imagine and to avoid what might go wrong before spending a cent or having to change course along the way.Breen, B. (2000, August). What’s your intuition? Fast Company, 290; Klein, G. (September 2007). Performing a project premortem. Harvard Business Review, 18–19; Klein, G. (2003). The power of intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work. New York: Random House; Pliske, R., McCloskey, M., & Klein, G. (2001). Decision skills training: Facilitating learning from experience. In E. Salas & G. Klein (Eds.), Linking expertise and naturalistic decision making 37–53. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Gary Klein, an expert on decision making in fast-paced, uncertain, complex, and critical environments, recommends that decision makers follow this six-step premortem process to increase their chances of success.
The premortem technique allows groups to truly delve into “what if” scenarios. For example, in a premortem session at a Fortune 50 company, an executive imagined that a potential billion-dollar environmental sustainability project might fail because the CEO had retired.
There are a number of ways to learn about decision making that can help make you more effective. If the decision is important, conduct a premortem to anticipate what might go wrong. When a decision is going to involve others, be proactive in getting them to buy in before the decision is made. Individuals and groups can suffer from decision-making traps and process losses. Understanding that you can spot and avoid these traps is important in helping to make you a more effective manager.