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What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Pre-Mortems as a Strategic AND Motivational Leadership Tool

On a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, the authors of that best-selling book—Stephen J. Dubner and Steve Levitt—decided to focus on a key Asset-Based Thinking principle: Failure is Your Friend. Of course, I was intrigued!

The topic stems from the authors’ new book, Think Like A Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, in which they promote the view that failure is unfairly stigmatized.

“I always tell my students—fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chances you have to fail at something else before you eventually maybe find the thing that you don’t fail at,” Steve Levitt said in the podcast.

Like Levitt, I believe failure is only feedback as to what you need to do differently. What is more, the mark of a highly effective leader is the ability to inspire a culture of fail-fast resilience in your organization.

Freakonomics podcast guest and author of Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, Gary Klein offered this incredible tip for taking the stigma out of failure: Pre-mortems. I thought it was so valuable, I wanted to share it with you.

What’s the worst that could happen?

According to Klein, a pre-mortem is a run-through of all the things that might go wrong with a project before you even start it. The process goes something like this:

  1. Get all the key people involved in the project in a room together.
  2. Tell them to close their eyes and relax.
  3. Ask them to look into the future to the end of the project. It has been an abject failure.
  4. Ask each person to take two minutes to write down all the reasons why it failed.
  5. Go around the room and have everyone state one reason for failure from their lists.
  6. Compile these reasons into a “Prospective Hindsight” catalog.
  7. Go around the room again to get ideas from each person for what they can do that they hadn’t thought of before to make the project a success.

Klein says the pre-mortem “liberates” everyone to think about failure without feeling like they’re bringing the team down with negativity. In that way, it certainly helps to take away the stigma.

Now, you might be thinking that it doesn’t seem very “Lead Positive” to spend so much time thinking about what could go wrong. Well, that is one way a pre-mortem could go if it isn’t done right. If everyone leaves the room feeling like there is no way to prevent the failure of the project, it certainly wouldn’t be very motivating.

That’s why I would add a critical last step to the pre-mortem process to ensure it ends on an uplifting and inspiring note.

8. For each reason for failure in the “Prospective Hindsight” catalog, brainstorm what the team could learn from the experience.

Use the ASA shift (Acknowledge, Scan, Act) to find the asset in the potential failure, discover new ways to bounce back and to regain lost ground.

By mining the potential failure for new opportunities, you ensure that the pre-mortem:

  • Takes the sting out of the possibility of failure
  • Provides new insights on how to shore up the success of the project
  • Mines new opportunities for bouncing back if something bad does end up happening

Now that is Lead Positive at work!

Dr. Kathy Cramer

Kathryn D. Cramer, PH.D.
Founder and Managing Partner, The Cramer Institute