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Go Back to the Future to Discover How Your Agreement Could Fail

When we’ve put in effort to solve a problem, we want our solution, decision, or agreement to have every chance at long-run success. Here’s a powerful way to improve our plan’s ability to stand the test of time: Go back to the future and test it with a premortem.

In traditional problem-solving we learn to look ahead and consider the ramifications of our plan: What could go wrong? What will probably go right? How can we fail-proof the agreement or solution we’ve just worked so hard to craft?

Considering how our agreement will survive the future is just plain smart if our goal isn’t just agreement, but an agreement that really works over time. And here’s something else that’s smart: Future-proofing in a way that increases the chances we’ll do it well.

It’s called a premortem and it uses the idea of “prospective hindsight.”

Better than foresight: Prospective hindsight

The typical way to look ahead is to use foresight — to stay in the present and try to imagine what might go wrong down the road.

But if we tweak that approach and replace foresight with prospective hindsight, we get better results. The researchers whose work ultimately led to the idea of a premortem defined prospective hindsight this way:

“Prospective hindsight involves generating an explanation for a future event as if it had already happened; i.e., one goes forward in time, and then looks back.”

Instead of standing in the present and asking, What could go wrong? we mentally stand in the future and ask, What did go wrong?

Why does this work better? One reason may be the time shift in perspective. The cognitive “flip” from present-looking-forward to future-looking-back seems to help us more successfully identify places our agreement, decision, solution, or project could fail.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, whose bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow [amazon affiliate link] helped make the premortem idea well known, identifies two more reasons. It helps overcome the groupthink that can take over once a decision appears to have been made. And it helps prevent the suppression of doubt. Says Kahneman,

“As a team converges on a decision— and especially when the leader tips her hand— public doubts about the wisdom of the planned move are gradually suppressed and eventually come to be treated as evidence of flawed loyalty to the team and its leaders. The suppression of doubt contributes to overconfidence in a group where only supporters of the decision have a voice. The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts.”

Conducting a premortem

Cognitive researcher Gary Klein, who coined the term premortem, says, “The premortem operates on the assumption that the ‘patient’ has died, and so asks what did go wrong.”

The general process is pretty straightforward:

  1. I usually introduce it like this: It’s a year from now. You’re looking back on this day and shaking your head in regret because the decision you reached here was a spectacular failure (Klein’s phrase). What are all the plausible reasons it failed?
  2. Ask everyone to work on their own for a few minutes, writing down every reason they can imagine for the failure. Particularly encourage things they hadn’t originally said out loud for fear of being impolitic or seen as uncooperative. (An alternative approach is to ask people to write the story of the failure instead of a list. Sometimes the idea of telling a story frees the mind differently than list-making.)
  3. When I’m working with a pair (business partners, for example, or a couple), I invite each to take turns sharing items on their list, while I record them on a flipchart or whiteboard. I take care to reframe any accusatory language into terms that capture the failure reason without inflaming the situation.
  4. When I’m working with a team, I ask each person to read aloud one reason from their list and we go around the room this way until I’ve recorded all the reasons on a flipchart or whiteboard. (With a larger group, like a team, another approach is to split the group in two: One works on the reasons the decision failed, the other on why it succeeded.)
  5. Then begin working through the list, using the items to strengthen the agreement and prevent the pitfalls.

A few important tips to keep in mind:

  • The premortem should take place when you’ve almost reached an agreement or decision but haven’t yet formally committed yourself to it. You want enough detail fleshed out to have a solid decision to look back on, but not have fine-tuned so carefully you’ve inadvertently started feeling committed to it.
  • Make sure that everyone who is knowledgeable about the decision is present.
  • In business settings, I haven’t found the word “premortem” particularly problematic. I’ve found that in some personal settings, such as working with a family, the word sometimes makes people uncomfortable, perhaps because it invokes autopsy. So I will often skip using the label and just describe the activity.
  • Sometimes it’s useful to conduct the premortem at a separate time from the drafting of the initial plan or agreement. If people are tired, I’d rather they have some energy for the activity, because otherwise, they may attempt to gloss over the process just “to get things over with.” That’s not the goal here, to do something for the sake of doing it. The goal is a decision, plan, or agreement that has a better chance of standing the test of time.
  • If you’re worried the premortem will raise the conflict’s heat again: It could (though I find it rarely does). That’s not a good enough reason, in my book, to skip it. Fear of making things uncomfortable is a very unfortunate reason for going forward with a decision that hasn’t been adequately vetted.
  • If you’re a mediator and find yourself hesitating about premortems in general or a specific premortem, it may be time for a look inward. What is motivating your hesitation? Sometimes an almost-done agreement is very seductive to a tired or tested mediator and we need to push ourselves to fully do our job and ask the question that could unravel parts or all of the agreement. Better for it to unravel while you’re still sitting there, than later, when you’re not

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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