Using prospective hindsight to manage risk

Nobody likes an Eeyore. When we’re planning new projects, it’s tempting for team members to focus on the positives and to gloss over all of the things that could go wrong. So when the inevitable does hit the fan, it can come as somewhat of a surprise. But what if we could think about project risks without looking as if we’re trying to jinx the whole thing? And what if we could benefit from 20:20 hindsight right at the start? Welcome to the world of prospective hindsight and the project pre-mortem.

I was reminded of this in Oliver Burkeman’s column in the Guardian a few weeks ago, but I first came across the idea in an article by Gary Klein in the Harvard Business Review some years ago. In this article, Klein draws on research by Deborah J. Mitchell of the Wharton School, Jay Russo of Cornell and Nancy Pennington of the University of Colorado to propose the idea of the ‘project pre-mortem’. And I remember it well, because I even wrote a paper for one of my then clients explaining how it worked*.

The idea behind the project pre-mortem is that people tend to be reluctant to bring up their objections to or concerns about a project at the planning stage, in case they are seen as lacking in commitment or ‘not a team player’. But this doesn’t mean that their concerns are not valid. If there’s a problem with a project, it’s in everyone’s interest to identify it sooner, rather than later.

The project pre-mortem makes it easier for people to raise their concerns by, quite simply, working on the assumption that the project – which in reality is still in its planning stages – has failed spectacularly. Participants are then asked to identify all the reasons that they can think of for this failure. This could include specific technical issues, lack of proper implementation or simply a waning of interest on the part of senior management. (We all know it can happen.) These concerns are then discussed, assessed and – where necessary – integrated into the project’s planning or risk management framework.

The benefits of this approach, according to Klein, are many and varied. There is a greater likelihood, for example, that critical issues will be picked up earlier on. Project team members will feel more involved in the planning and management of the project. And discussion of threats at this early stage provides a handy early-warning system should they start to become apparent for real during the implementation of the project.

The coach in me thinks that there’s also significant value in giving people permission to think about failure. As people, we fail all the time. And a significant proportion of corporate projects go the way of the pear, too. Yet we rarely like to admit it, let alone talk about it with colleagues. But by using prospective hindsight to make that failure a reality – even if only verbally – we’re removing our mental barriers and allowing ourselves to think not if, but how. We can stop worrying about whether the worst could happen, and focus on how it happened and what we can do to prevent it. Surely even Eeyore would approve.

* In fact, they’re still my client some seven years later, which is nice.

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