Pre-Mortem: One of the Essentials to Effective Decision Making

“If we had only thought about that ahead of time!” Have you ever heard someone say that after a decision went wrong?  Too often, we confront a problem, figure out how to deal with it and then are surprised when the outcome isn’t what we planned. One of the secrets to making better decisions is to consider in advance how different possible solutions may play out.

In the 1980’s management researcher, Gary Klein, coined the term pre-mortem in an article written for the Harvard Business Review. Klein argued that when making a decision, it is important to pre-suppose what could happen as a result of acting in a particular way. As Klein put it, a premortem is “imagining that an event has already occurred.  This increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes . . . a premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem.” In other words, the person or team asks, “What could go wrong?” when considering how to act. Those possibilities are then factored into the decision-making process.

As much as this technique was created as a part of management strategy, a premortem can be a helpful method for making any decision requiring a modicum of judgment. In our haste to cross items off our to-do lists these days, it is tempting to identify the problem, come up with possible solutions and act without taking time to consider the downstream impact on people or how they might react.

Years ago, I was a newly-hired counselor in a university career center. While I kept my office nice and tidy, the common area was a mess – half-used reams of copier paper, full wastebaskets, books and magazines piled all over, dirty coffee cups and dishes. You get the idea. I got so fed up that one weekend I came in and organized the entire area. I cleaned off desks, emptied trash cans, washed coffee cups and even painted a wall that was all marked up. I thought my colleagues would be pleased. Instead, they didn’t speak to me for a week! How dare I straightened up their mess without asking. The one thing I had failed to do was consider how they might react if I did them this “favor.” Chances are, you’ve made at least one mistake like this as well. Conducting a pre-mortem, whether it’s personal or team-based can help you avoid mistakes and heartburn like these.

Remember to take each of these scenarios out three or four steps and consider the possible outcomes. Then make a decision as how to proceed and develop strategies for the different responses you might confront. Rather than using post-mortems to evaluate what went wrong, we should use pre-mortems to increase our chances of success.

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