A premortem story

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Yesterday I led a premortem workshop with for a multi-disciplinary group from a local authority. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time but the people I’ve been working with and the projects I’ve been supporting so far this year haven’t felt like a good fit. The session yesterday went really well and I think the concept and the format could be routinely built into public sector project planning.

What a premortem is

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.

Research psychologist Gary A Klein (quoted above) widely introduced the idea of premortems back in 2007 via Harvard Business Review. I first heard about the idea in a Freakonomics podcast episode called Failure Is Your Friend (skip to around 19:00 to hear Mr Klein talk about premortems in detail) and I was immediately taken by it. It’s been a couple of years since I heard the podcast and I’ve been waiting for the right client and the right project to apply a premortem to.

How it all went down

I was linked up with a local primary school headteacher by Janine Matheson at Codebase Stirling. The teacher had approached Codebase because she was looking for help to think through the creation of co-located services across two very different socio-economic areas, a huge task handed down to her from on high. She’d recently heard about hackathons and wanted to explore whether or not a hack could help her get some clarity about approaches, however, it was too early in the process. At the time there was not enough information available for anyone to work with so a hack was off the table. But it seemed clear to me a premortem was the next step. The conditions seemed perfect: there is a small brief for an enormous task, there are stacks of gnarly problems, there are multiple stakeholders and there is a ridiculously tight timeline (welcome to local government) and no major decisions have been made yet. I agreed the premortem approach with the headteacher a couple of weeks ago and yesterday we got in a room with people working in housing, education, health, enforcement, policing, poverty reduction, economic development and to imagine failure.

We started with introductions then got stuck right in. For our session we focussed on four different problems/potential obstacles to success that had been determined in two previous project meetings: physical location, resources, collaborative working and community engagement. We asked participants to spend 20 minutes quietly writing down how each of these things contributed to the failure of the project and we asked for minimal conversation during this time. When that was done we went right into another 20 minutes of proposing solutions. We relaxed the conversation ‘rule’ during and asked people to think about what they can offer and to spark off each other. We wrapped up with discussing the solutions I typed up from participants’ written notes and listed them under ‘do’, ‘explore’ and ‘create’. These things will be taken forward by the core organising team at their next steering group in January and, after group discussion and networking, some participants have put themselves forward to start some work now.

Framing risk assessment in a different way and allowing a little room for people to be imaginative in a safe space is a beautiful thing. Being honest about their past failures and the current failings in workplaces or the sector allowed participants to have ‘prospective hindsight’ to think about how- or if- they can prevent the same pitfalls that have killed previous ‘patients’.

Get in touch if you want to talk more about premortems 👻💀☠️

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