The Premortem: Just Play Dead


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Assumptions that do not associate with probabilities create a false sense of certainty. Working backward, considering alternatives that emerge from failed assumptions broadens the scope of scenarios examined. The Premortem technique raises awareness of possibilities, including their likely consequences, to enrich planning.

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The Premortem: Just Play Dead

  1. 1. The views expressed in this presentation are the views of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank, or its Board of Governors, or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this presentation and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. The countries listed in this presentation do not imply any view on ADB's part as to sovereignty or independent status or necessarily conform to ADB's terminology. The Premortem: Just Play Dead Olivier Serrat 2013
  2. 2. Why History Repeats Itself A postmortem examination is a surgical procedure conducted by a pathologist to determine or confirm the exact cause and circumstances of death or the character and extent of changes produced by disease. Elsewhere, it is common to conduct the equivalent of a postmortem by means of completion or evaluation reports— after-action reviews, retrospects, and learning histories are rarer—to try to understand why an initiative did or did not succeed. And so, lessons (to be) learned eventuate in the form of hindsight—that, by and large, focusing on accountability, not learning—at the (wrong) end of a plan.
  3. 3. On Safe Silence and Bias Does the following development seem familiar? A proposal is drawn by a task force, endorsed by decision makers, approved by senior management, launched with fanfare, but leads nowhere. Why? In bureaucratic organizations, people are reluctant to express reservations about the workability of a plan: they keep mum because it can be dangerous to oppose what bosses command. Cognitive barriers play a role too: individuals and groups may be biased; when they have worked hard on a plan they can also become psychologically committed to the idea of success, be overconfident, and therefore blind to some of its risks.
  4. 4. On the Need for Dissent Analysis is an exercise in judgment under conditions of uncertainty: the errors in judgment we make, singly or in groups, in a day or through life, are countless. In complicated, complex, or, chaotic situations, a dependable measure might be to legitimize dissent and place creative suggestions and contrarian objections on the table to reinforce the decision-making process and improve a plan's chances of success ex-ante. A devil's advocate takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with to test the quality of an argument and help improve or force the withdrawal of a proposal.
  5. 5. Erase and Rewind Taking a team out of the context of defending its plan and shielding it from flaws opens perspectives from which the team can actively search for faults. Tasking a team to imagine that its plan has already been implemented and failed helps identify reasons for negative future outcomes. The outcomes of such stress-testing are increased appreciation of the uncertainties inherent in any projection of the future and identification of markers that, if incorporated in the team's design and monitoring framework and subsequently tracked, would give early warning that progress is not being achieved as expected.
  6. 6. The Premortem: General Steps Accept that a plan has failed. Elicit reasons for failure. Gather and prioritize the list of reasons. Strengthen the plan to forestall fiasco.
  7. 7. The Premortem: Specifics Settle on a period after which it might be known whether a plan was well formulated. Imagine the period has expired: the plan is a fiasco. Ask team members to list 10 reasons for failure. Starting with the leader, each team member should voice in turn the reasons on their lists. After the session is over, gather and prioritize the list of reasons that grew out of collective knowledge. Look for ways to strengthen the plan by avoiding or mitigating essential drivers of failure, beginning with the two or three items deemed of greatest concern.
  8. 8. Further Reading • ADB. 2008. Reading the Future. Manila. • ——. 2008. The Reframing Matrix. Manila. • ——. 2009. The Five Whys Technique. Manila. • ——. 2009. Learning from Evaluation. Manila. • ——. 2009. Wearing Six Thinking Hats. Manila. • ——. 2009. Asking Effective Questions. Manila.
  9. 9. Further Reading • ADB. 2009. Understanding Complexity. Manila. • ——. 2011. Critical Thinking. Manila. • ——. 2012. The Premortem Technique. Manila.
  10. 10. Quick Response Codes @ADB @ADB Sustainable Development Timeline @LinkedIn @ResearchGate @Scholar @SlideShare @Twitter