Have you ever contemplated your own demise?
Imagine that three years from now your career will be in tatters. You will have no job and your prospects of future employment will seem bleak. Your carefully manicured career path simply won’t materialise.
Now ask yourself: what are the most likely reasons for things going wrong?
And now ask yourself: what could you start doing today to prevent those reasons from happening?
Whether it’s a career plan or an organizational strategy, we tend to feel far more comfortable developing positive, purpose- or mission-driven strategy. It’s what some people call ‘backcasting’: setting a vision and then working back from it to identify the steps you’ll need to take in order to achieve it. It’s our go-to approach to strategy development because it helps us to break down long-term growth planning into practical, incremental activity. During implementation, progress can be measured against plan and corrective action taken. Backcasting is positive. It’s practical. It’s logical. But in the real world, it’s far from a guarantee of success.
Failure is commonplace. Which is why in 2007 research psychologist Gary Klein pioneered the idea of a pre-mortem: imagining that a project has failed and using the thought experiment to identify flaws in your plans. Pre-mortems function the opposite way to backcasting; rather than thinking positively about how to achieve a desired outcome, teams are tasked with identifying potential sources of failure and finding ways to mitigate those sources to make the strategy more resilient. In many respects, pre-mortems are the perfect complement to vision-led strategy planning.
There’s also a cultural upside to embedding pre-mortems into your (or your team’s) approach to planning: a 2017 study by researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina found that people tend to avoid precisely the type of feedback that pre-mortems are designed to elicit. One of the biggest issues with vision-led strategy development is that it encourages us to seek out confirmatory feedback; the moment we establish and communicate a plan, we create a strong incentive to search for evidence that it’s a good plan and that it’s working. Conversely, we tend to avoid disconfirmatory feedback because it fails to confirm our own view of how good a job we’re doing. Pe-mortems have a cultural benefit because they create a safe space for disconfirmatory feedback.
Like many things in life, strategy is rarely perfect the first time round. And even the most carefully conceived plans can go awry. As Mike Tyson famously observed, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ Whether your plans are personal or organizational, they must eventually confront reality – and reality always wins. Contemplating the worst that could happen to your plans won’t turn you into one of life’s great cynics or pessimists. It will demonstrate to the people you work with that you’re realistic about your human fallibility, that you’re open-minded about outcomes and that you value alternative points of view – particularly when they differ from your own. Introducing pre-mortem thinking won’t just make your strategies and plans more resilient: it will make you more resilient, too.