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This article appeared in May 2019, in Romanian, in BIZ Magazine

Memento mori! The meditation on your own death, a central practice of Stoicism, Buddhism, Christian and Islamic philosophy, can make you live your life better. The symbol with skull and bones is, actually, the visual representation of the reminder that we are mortal.

The symbol could be found not only on the pirate’s flags, but also in the symbolism of various cultures throughout history. In general, when it comes to death, people prefer to change the subject and cover their ears because it’s not comfortable at all.

I bet many of you, reading these lines, are very tempted to switch tabs to a less disturbing article. Have a little patience! Philosophies that urge us to think about our own death, say that if we overcome the initial repulse, such meditation can make us reorder our priorities and consciously appreciate what is truly important.

Okay, okay, but what does that has to do with business? It has, because today I will write about pre-mortem, a managerial strategy technique that, although a little uncomfortable at first, can help you avoid many project planning mistakes. The essence of a pre-mortem is to imagine that we are in the future and our project has just failed big time.

What is a pre-mortem analsysis?

Our job is to find the most likely causes of this failure. Basically, a pre-mortem analysis usually goes like this: before launching a project, but after the detailed planning stage is over, the project leader invites the team (always physically present, not on Skype or on the phone) for a session of about two hours.

In the first hour, all participants are invited to write on a piece of paper all the reasons why the project could go awry. The inventor of this technique, Gary Klein, points out that the leader must encourage participants to include reasons that might be uncomfortable, such as “if the boss leaves, the priority of the project will be lowered and will no longer be funded”.

After everyone has written the ideas on the list, the project leader asks them to say out loud one reason at a time, while he centralizes them on a whiteboard. An element of gamification can also be added, with a special prize for the most interesting cause of death or for the one that no one has thought of. The atmosphere, which depends a lot on the leader, must be relaxed.

As in many Romanian memorials, this meeting has the potential to change the perspective on death and to turn it into an occasion of good will, laughter and valuable lessons. The second hour begins with grouping and ordering the potential causes of failure identified and then addressing the most important ones in order to find, also in group, ways to improve the plan and prevent failure.

Differences to post-mortem and critical analysis

Pre-mortem, a technique I found out about in one article on Andreea Roșca’s blog (thank you, Andreea!) differs from two other, more traditional techniques of analysis: post-mortem analysis and critical analysis. A post-mortem analysis, in which the team gathers after a project is over, to see what went well and what went wrong, can be revealing, but it happens too late (mistakes can no longer be avoided) and usually people are too busy searching for the guilty ones.

A critical analysis takes place before launch, but because participants need to identify things that “could go wrong” (unlike the pre-mortem perspective, in which, after the imagined disaster, we find what “went wrong”), they are likely to identify fewer potential reasons for failure because no one else dares to speak (groupthink), or because they don’t want to contradict their boss, or because questioning overly optimistic estimates can be seen badly in the organization.

In the original article in “HBR”, in which he describes his technique, Gary Klein gives some very interesting examples of successful application of pre-mortem in corporations. And in a very interesting Klein-Kahneman dialogue, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman recounts how he mentioned the technique in Davos (obviously, giving credit to Klein), and the CEO of a large corporation said it was worth coming to Davos just to find out this concept. In the business education programs at the Maastricht School of Management we explain and catalyze the use of the pre-mortem technique, often with revealing results.

Another context in which I apply the pre-mortem technique is when I attend the presentation of a startup. I tell the founders that we are in 2021 and their company has just gone bankrupt. And then I ask them to tell me why it went bankrupt.

I don’t know if it’s the emotions inherent in the pitching sessions or the fact that they haven’t done any strategic thinking exercises, but most of the time the founders identify (wrongly) as the potential reason for failure the very chapter they know best (product, service, software).

Moreover, they don’t mention at all chapters where it’s obvious that they lack skills, such as marketing or sales. In this case, the pre-mortem analysis identifies the strategic biases of the founders, which usually are correlated with the expenditures in the business plan (too much for the product, too little for marketing & sales). If you are a developer and want to launch a technology startup or if you are a talented pastry chef and want to open a pastry shop, I think it’s good to take on the founder’s board someone who complements your technical skills with some strategic business experience.

Using pre-mortem for persuasion

One last way in which the pre-mortem technique can be used is in persuasion. If tomorrow we have an important meeting with a client or with our manager and we have to convince them of something, usually we go to that meeting confident and with no concrete plan in our pockets, because, obviously, we’re too good and we know what to say.

And we usually come back with the tail between our legs. Even those who plan to approach the subject focusing exclusively on the pro arguments (so that they convince the other say “yes”) – the next day, in case of failure, the reasons why the other person said “no” are usually totally different. That’s why I think it’s crucial that we do a pre-mortem before an important meeting.

We imagine that we have already left the meeting and that the other one said “no”. What were the three most likely reasons for refusal? Only after we’ve prepared, along with our pro arguments, some solid counter-arguments to address the three reasons for refusal, we will be truly ready for the meeting and we will have more chances of success.

Do you have a project that is just starting? Try to think that we are in the future, the project just failed and you have to find three concrete reasons that led to this. It takes a few minutes and you might be surprised. If you do the exercise with your team, you will be even more surprised by the different and very valuable perspectives that come to light. Pre-mortem is a very useful exercise at the beginning of any project, and if you go through the initial discomfort, you might even have fun.

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