Death is not a concept confined to life forms. Increasingly, businesses are having to seriously grapple with it. Case in point – a whopping 75% of all IT projects initiated in the US are deemed failures by those responsible for initiating them. Not only that, the implications of failed projects can be fatal: 17% of large IT projects fail so miserably that they jeopardize the existence of the company that initiated them.
In much the same way that autopsies uncover causes of deaths, post-mortems (which have become increasingly commonplace in the corporate world) seek to identify “causes of death” in the business world, be they with respect to projects or initiatives. Similar to autopsies, post-mortems involve dissection and then examination: employees reflect on a failed project or initiative to determine why a failure occurred, with the objective to avoid similar occurrences in the future.
Regrettably, far too often, post-mortems quickly transform into “murder mysteries.” The conversations morph into “whodunits.” Participants tend to be laser-focused on identifying the culprits (by they the marketing team, the project manager, etc.) rather than focusing on specific actions taken and potential missteps. Moreover, because post-mortems are conducted after the fact and by those who have hindsight, participants are privy to knowledge of the outcome. They are inherently biased and are less inclined to effectively identify the root causes. Finally, there’s no potential to “revive” a project and correct course before the grave has been dug. Too little, too late.
Wouldn’t it be nice if business leaders had clairvoyance and could foresee the future? What if they could predict whether a certain project or initiative is doomed for failure? While this is not yet possible, there is a next-best-thing to a clairvoyant superpower: the pre-mortem. During a pre-mortem, the antithesis of the post-mortem, employees are encouraged to engage in a hypothetical exercise. They’re asked to imagine that a particular project failed, to brainstorm any and all potential reasons why the project failed, and then identify possible ways of guarding against the identified “causes of death.” A pre-mortem can be very insightful in terms of assessing the likelihood of failure and in terms of shedding light on potentially fatal pitfalls. Ultimately, pre-mortems optimize the odds of your company’s longevity. Not surprisingly, when prospective hindsight of this sort is employed, it has been found to increase one’s ability to identify future outcomes by 30%.
Pre-mortems, in spite of their merits, cannot be likened to a magic vaccine that guarantees immortality. Before engaging in pre-mortems, business leaders should ensure the following:
1. Involve each and every player
There are a multitude of reasons why initiatives and projects fail (absence of product/market fit, inadequate input on the part of the design team, budget overages, etc). In fact, Harvard Business Review has compiled a list of 40 potential reasons to explain a product launch failure, titled “40 Ways to Crash a Product Launch.” By involving each and every player in a pre-mortem, across all relevant business units, you’ll ensure that the perspectives of all stakeholders are considered and adequately addressed. When all relevant business units are heard, it calibrates participants’ understanding of the challenges involved in a project. Gary Klein, who coined the concept of “pre-mortem” as it relates to business in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article explains, “Each [participant] has a unique set of experiences, scars, and mental models [he/she brings]. The collective knowledge in the room is far greater than that of any one person.”
2. Encourage rebuttals
While it’s important to consider all feasible causes of project failure, the objective of a pre-mortem is not to “kill” every project. After identifying possible reasons why a particular project could fail, participants should be encouraged to generate meaningful rebuttals. The objective is to rationalize why each hypothetical stumbling block will not occur. By tackling, discussing, and documenting rebuttals, participants feel empowered to more effectively gauge the potential of project success. This practice also compels participants to do their homework and gain a better understanding of market dynamics, customer preferences, product specifications, etc. Before starting Square, now-CEO Jack Dorsey, presented investors with a list of 140 hypothetical reasons why Square would fail. Importantly, he supplemented his list with rebuttals. Ultimately, the exercise empowered him to better understand the industry and the potential for Square to succeed. Not surprisingly, this exercise, in turn, instilled confidence among investors in Dorsey’s ability as a leader and motivated them to invest in Square.
3. Systematically revisit pre-mortems
Pre-mortems are intended to be ongoing affairs. In much the same way that life creatures undergo changes that can jeopardize their longevity, the DNA of a company is frequently in flux. As a project lifecycle progresses, it’s inevitable that new stimuli may threaten the success of the project. As well, previously-identified causes of failure are sure to change and become more or less relevant.
Pre-mortems should be revisited frequently. The ritual should be seen as akin to routine check-ups with a general practitioner. If pre-mortems are conducted too infrequently, participants are likely to lose sight of the potential dangers that may lead to failures. Out of sight, out of mind.
Rebuttals ought to be also revisited frequently. There’s a natural tendency to halt a project when the going gets tough. According to Jesse Itzler, author of Living with a SEAL, most individuals stop a particular endeavor when they’ve reached approximately 40% of their mental capacity. With this in mind, if rebuttals are concrete and thoroughly discussed, the practice of revisiting them is sure to help boost employees’ confidence that a project will endure with perseverance. They’ll be better equipped to muster the cognitive capacity to weather the storms.
In contrast to human beings, the longevity of corporations has steadily declined over the past few decades. In the 1920s, for instance, the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 was 75 years. Fast forward to the 1970s, and the average fell to 27 years. The trend continues to this day. In recent years, specifically between 2005 and 2010, the S&P 500 corporate lifespan plummeted to 15 years.
It’s time that business leaders switch their natural tendencies of focusing on past fatalities and look prospectively by incorporating pre-mortems into their regimen. In much the same way as following a healthy diet and exercise routine both improve the odds of longevity, pre-mortems can be a company’s best hedge against project derailment.