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.

How Does This Place Make Money? Part Two

In the last post, I illustrated the value of asking the question, “How does this place make money?” But exactly how can you do that without breaking the bank or disrupting normal business function? The strategies I’m going to recommend are remarkably simple and can be accomplished with a smart-phone and a bit of money spent on editing and design. In fact, you probably have employees who would welcome the opportunity to work on projects like these and will bring their creativity and hidden skills to the effort. In no particular order:

Produce a video (or videos) that illustrates how the firm functions – Accounting firms have used this strategy for years to aid in the recruiting of young auditors. A “day in the life of” video helps viewers understand the nuances of the job, the effort involved, the typical decisions made, even the employee’s daily routine. Here’s an example. How can you adapt this idea? It doesn’t require anything more than a smart phone and a bit of creativity.

Commission infographics – These one-page illustrations can summarize company functions and processes in a colorful and entertaining way. An on-line graphic artist would be happy create one for a  hundred bucks. Then give it to everyone. Better still, make a list of the 15 or 20 things every employee should know about the firm. Then commission an infographic for each one.

Host a series of podcasts – On any given day, most people have no idea what the firm’s leadership does and the decisions they make. Why not create a series of thirty-minute podcasts allowing those in senior leadership to explain their roles, how they make decisions, and a bit about how they got to where they are? Employees can listen to them during their commute or even on the job as they work.  As with infographics, the cost for implementation is minimal.

Explain the process and economics of typical projects and functions – Ask functional managers to take a few minutes during staff meetings to breakout the costs and steps involved of the work typically performed by the organization or division. I have been surprised countless times by what people do not know about the functions they depend upon daily. When they know more, they will make suggestions for improvement. Those suggestions can be invaluable.

Promote inter-team collaboration – Give those in functions that interact with each other periodic opportunities to interact with each other socially. Throw periodic pizza parties and the like during lunch time. You don’t need to provide a formal structure. It’s been my experience that the people who have questions and concerns will find each other and discuss what needs to be discussed. The relationships and trust this engenders can be invaluable.

Have people trade jobs for a day – Years ago, there was a British tradition in which the bosses switched positions with the front-liners for the day after Christmas every year. While now a little recognized effort, implementing a modified version of this idea would provide those involved with insights into the challenges and decisions of those with whom they work, not to mention a bit of humor as everyone gains more empathy for other roles.

These are just a few of the ways you can answer the question, “How does this place make money?” If you know of others, pass them along. I’ll include them in a future post. From the person who started last Monday to the twenty-year veteran, everyone benefits from being better informed about the firm for which they work. And so will the firm itself.

How Does This Place Make Money? Part One

That’s the question I have challenged employers to ask their people for years. Sadly, most people can’t provide an answer that demonstrates they really understand the business model of the firm for which they work. Generally, they’ll say something like, “We sell software,” or “We deliver stuff to restaurants.” If you ask them to drill down on that and provide more detail, most will give you a blank stare. Why? Because of silos. In other words, they can only explain how the processes work within their particular part of the company. Ask someone in accounts payable how checks are cut and they can explain the 17 steps. Ask someone in the warehouse how trucks are loaded, and they’ll give you a short dissertation on all the details. But ask them about the overall business model and they’ll shrug their shoulders. In some cases, the person will say, “That’s not really my job.” But it is! Here are three reasons why:

  • It engenders pride. A while ago, I spoke to an all hands meeting for Rasmussen Group, a large heavy construction company. These are the people who build roads, bridges and the other components of infrastructure upon which we all rely. Talk about silos! With the exception of the engineers and project superintendents, most employees spend their days moving earth, operating cranes and other mostly isolated tasks. So, every couple of years, the firm’s leadership brings everyone together for an expenses-paid weekend to provide information about the company, offer a bit of training and allow them to socialize. This past year, everyone was shown a twenty-minute video illustrating how all the components for a large project came together. It featured those in the room doing their jobs on these enormous pieces of equipment. What fun it was! Everybody in the room was laughing and pointing and teasing each other when they appeared on the screen. Ask most heavy equipment operators what they do and they’ll say something like, “I drive a tractor.” Ask a Rasmussen operator and he’s more likely to say, I help build bridges.”
  • It engenders better daily decisions. When you are proud of what you do, you take more ownership in the outcome. That means you think about the bigger picture – how your decisions affect others and how theirs affect yours and how all decisions impact the final product. You can’t help but make better decisions when you’re invested in the outcome. Does this sometimes engender disagreements about the best way to proceed? Yes, but that’s a good thing because it demonstrates that people care. So as long as they are productive, let’s have more disagreements. They will produce better decisions.
  • This results in loyalty and retention. It’s been said that employee loyalty is a thing of the past – that most employees see their jobs as contracts. Not when they believe in what they do and believe that what they do is making a contribution. When they’re making good decisions and seeing the direct results of their efforts, employees, regardless of age, will remain on the job and continue to hone their skills. The costs of turnover can devastate a company’s bottom line.

Simply answering the question, “How does this place make money?” begins the effort of building pride, compelling better decisions, and boosting retention. How? I’ll share some strategies for that in the next post.

Getting to Neutral

“Often, I lie in wait in meetings, like a hunter looking for his prey, ready to spring out at the first moment of silence. My gun is loaded with preestablished thoughts. I take aim and fire, the context irrelevant, my bullet and its release are all that matter to me.” William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – MIT Professor

This quote reminds me of how often I want to leap into response mode when having a conversation with someone. I know I’m supposed to wait for them to complete their thought. But it’s just so tempting to finish their thought for them or offer an opposing point because I think I know what they’re going to say. I hate it when someone does this to me. So, I try not to do it to someone else.

The same thing is true of making decisions. Our lives are full of perceptions and biases. We leap to conclusions without having the entire picture. We think we know the answer. Perhaps someone is pushing us to act. Maybe we want to be the leader because the leaders are the ones who make the decisions. In essence, our impatience and desire for control get the better of us. Then we feel regret when the outcome is not what we expected. The reason for this is that we’re missing a step in our rush to make the decision. We need to get to neutral, first.

Getting to neutral means taking time to make sure we clearly understand the decision to be made before rushing to act. It means asking two questions: 1) What’s the real decision that needs to be made and; 2) What biases do I have about the situation and people involved that may misguide my thinking?  Too often, we think we know what decision needs to be made in a particular situation because we’ve been in that situation before. But is it really? Taking to clarify this can make the difference between a good decision and a bad one. We also need to consider how past experiences and perception may color our thinking. This doesn’t mean making a big list necessarily. It could mean simply taking a step back to consider the feelings and thoughts that could be distorting your logic.

You might ask, “Where does this intersect with intuition? After all, intuition is based on past experiences and our biases and perceptions are a product of experience and what we’ve heard from others.” Yes, intuition is something the best decision makers rely on all the time. But they also take time to approach decisions with clarity and awareness about any personal influences they may be bringing to the process. No one can eliminate these influences. Acknowledging them is generally enough. (If you can’t do that, maybe you should recuse yourself from making the decision.)

Getting to neutral doesn’t take a lot of time. But having the presence of mind to do it before making decisions will save you and others the heartburn of misguided decisions.

Overcoming the Tyranny of Choice

We’ve all become spoiled by the number of choices we have. Supermarkets offer more than 60,000 consumer goods in all sizes and shapes. Searching on-line generates thousands of links for even the most obscure topic or item. Artificial intelligence anticipates the words we want to use in a text, the products we want to buy and provides instant directions if we search for a particular store or business.

Yet there is building evidence that many people are feeling overwhelmed by the number of decisions forced upon them daily. Constant pop-ups conspire to deflect out attention. We find ourselves declining endless offers in exchange for personal information. We resort to placing phones on silent and refusing to answer any call for which we do not recognize the number. Some people have begun to call this the “tyranny of choice.”

“OKAY!” you might say. “Tell me something I don’t know. Better still, teach me how to battle this tyranny of choice. So, consider these four strategies when attempting to reduce the decision fatigue in your life.

Review the apps on your phone and remove the ones you’re not using.Do you really need a tip calculation app? Twenty percent of $24.03 is $2.40 times two or $4.80, for instance. You get the idea. How about that app you downloaded to navigate last year’s industry convention? When was the last time you opened that? How about the app that allows you to age your face? Chances are, the novelty wore off after 48 hours. Remember, by the way, that even if they’re not open many of these apps are tracking your location, personal information and even your purchasing history. After all, you probably gave them permission when you clicked on “Accept Terms and Conditions” without reading them.

Install an ad blocker.Simply search on ad blocker for each browser you use. Then follow the instructions. I know. You’ve been meaning to do it. But there are so many other decisions you need to deal with first. Just do it. Total time invested? About 15 minutes.

Add a note about Reply All to your signature file.It might read something like – Thanks for NOT copying me on e-mails for which I do not need to respond. This will not end this nuisance completely. But even it drops by 20%, you will have reduced your decision fatigue.

Schedule internet and YouTube searches for just before another commitment. It’s so easy to open a browser for “just a minute” and lose 20 minutes for your life. Need to research a new appliance? Do so 10 minutes before that meeting on Zoom. Trying to figure out how to install linoleum in you your basement bathroom? Search for instructions on YouTube just before that lunch you have coming up.

Decision fatigue is hampering all of us at this point. Implement these simple ideas to reduce your daily stress. I’d offer you more strategies for doing so. But then I’d just be contributing to your tyranny of choice.

Do You Really Need a Rule for That?

One of the joys of my job is interviewing a wide diversity of people every year. They generally range from CEOs to front-liners. While you might think senior people would provide the best insights, there are times when someone who doesn’t know how to filter their comments says something that strikes at the heart of an issue. Such was the case with Sammy, a CSR with a regional distributor. I had begun by asking him how he liked his job and he said, “I love it! They have a rule for everything. I don’t have to think about anything.”

“What happens if there’s no rule for something?” I asked.

“I just ask my manager,” said Sammy, “and he tells me exactly what to do.”

At that point, I almost asked, “And why do they need to pay you?” I didn’t. But I wondered how many people in how many organizations across the US have the same impression of their job as Sammy.

The typical retort I get when I challenge managers on this point is, “We turn people so fast, there’s no point in teaching them how to think.” So, what these organizations end up with is one-and-a-half people doing every job, at least on the front line. In other words, one person to do the job and a half a person (ie. the manager) to do the thinking.

So, let’s break this down and examine the premise. First, maintaining this philosophy in a tight job market is like setting fire to thousands of dollars every month. Pouring your effort into retaining people is SO much more profitable that recruiting replacements.

Second, it’s a safe bet that the majority of those hired every year, want to feel like they’re making a contribution. In fact, most surveys reflect this. How would you feel if you discovered you were supposed to say and do the same things over and over again, forty hours a week, with no opportunity for creativity and problem solving? I’d quit in a New York Minute.

Third, how do customers and others feel when your employees say, “I’m sorry. I’m not allowed to do something outside the rules. (And you know some of them will.)

Now, you may be thinking, “This is not me. I don’t do this.” But think about how many times a week you enable those around you by answering their questions instead of making them think independently. Not only will your business thank you, your employees will as well. Why? Because you will have compelled them to develop the critical thinking skills and confidence they will need for the rest of their lives. So how about not creating a rule for everything and making them think instead?

Have Your Young Professionals Learned How to Fail?

Yes, you read that correctly. As I speak with employers every week, one of the concerns they mention is the apprehension many new graduates display when compelled to make a decision for which there is no right answer. Sometimes this apprehension takes the form of endless questions. Sometimes it appears to be a lack of urgency. Sometimes it looks like procrastination. But regardless of what it looks like, most managers want to yell, “Just make a decision!”

Without going into a long dissertation on why this is happening, it’s important to understand the origin of the problem – a lack of experience with failure. Those of us who came of age prior to the digital conveniences, learned how to “figure it out,” whatever “it” happened to be. There was no escape button or option to go back a screen. When our choice turned out to be wrong, we learned to recover. There were no helicopter parents or rules mandating second chances. We suffered embarrassment, loss of time or money, and even the laughter and humiliation of others. BUT WE GOT OVER IT!

We also learned these lessons earlier in life. Ask those 35 and older when they held their first job and most will tell you 14, 15 or 16, many even younger. I managed a paper route in high school. Did I learn how to fail and get past mistakes? Weekly. But in addition to developing a bunch of problem solving skills, I developed the confidence to act. When I took my first professional job, I already possessed a reservoir of “street smarts.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone in their early twenties and younger is a “snowflake.” But there are millions of emerging professionals who are just now being compelled to think for themselves and adapt to the consequences. So what do you do?

Employers: Want to deal with this successfully? Do two things: 1) Hire smart. I don’t care what the applicant knows. I want to know how the applicant think. Get past the meaningless interviews and put them to the test – simulations, case studies, practical applications will compel them to demonstrate their problem solving skills and confidence. You may still hire them because they have other traits you need. But at least you’ll know where to start from day one.

2) When they get stuck, let them stew. People have an amazing ability to come up with solutions when there’s no alternative. But if you don’t force them to do so, they won’t try.

Employers who are also parents: STOP SAVING YOUR KIDS’ BUTTS! I know you mean well. But you’re doing to other employers what you don’t want happening to you. The earlier they learn how to fail and recover, the earlier they’ll learn how thrive. Do you really want your kids struggling in their first job at age twenty-two because they didn’t start learning the basics at twelve? Want an award-winning book on the subject? Read Figure It Out! Better still, give it to your kids. I’ll send you a free copy. All you have to do is ask.

Are You Wrapping Your Kids in a Burlap Blanket?

My wife and I and our friends, Bill and LuAnn, were sharing stories about our twenty-something kids. As we discussed the normal trials and challenges these young people face, we wondered out loud about the balance between saving them and teaching them to “sink or swim.”

“We’ve always tried to wrap our kids in a burlap blanket,” said Bill. I asked him to explain.“It’s tempting,” he said, “to wrap them in a blanket of protection for every little problem that befalls them. No one wants to see their children suffer in any way. But they have to learn to face the world and the only way they do that is by failing occasionally and dealing with the consequences.”

There are thresholds to this approach, of course, because life can be a dangerous place. So rather than wrapping them in a nice, soft blanket, we should wrap them in burlap. That way, they feel some of the discomfort, but know that we still have their backs for critical issues.

This is an apt metaphor for what every parent faces over time as their children come of age. So the question becomes, “What can you do to wrap your kids in a “burlap blanket?” Where is the balance for your children between protecting them from genuine dangers and compelling them to grow through the occasional discomforts of life? They may not like this approach at first, but they’ll appreciate the gesture as they mature.

Making a Game of Repetitive Work

Like anyone, there are times when I am saddled with a repetitive task. Whether it’s raking the lawn, stuffing envelopes, or painting the kitchen, it can be tough to make the time go by. But I  have learned to re-frame this boredom by making a game out of it. So have most of those who grew up before the digital age. “How many envelopes can be stuffed in five minutes? How many brushstrokes does it take to paint this section of the wall?” You get the idea.

With the advent of digital technology, we have a generation, however, that has failed to develop the skills and creativity to amuse themselves without relying on a source of external stimulation. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with digital technology. But it has also become the vehicle for endless distractions. How many times a day do you check Facebook, watch a cute kitty video or check CNN for the latest political debacle?

There are still lots of tasks in life where constant smart phone checking slows productivity, distracts from the work at hand or is downright unsafe. One utility executive told me the number one safety issue for his organization is the young lineman who instinctively reaches for his phone when it rings, beeps or chirps. “That’ll get you killed if you’re close to live wires,” he said.

Recent research has shown clearly that many of those coming of age with a smart phone in their hands experience physical and emotional distress when deprived of its use for more than a few minutes at a time. While we may lament this impact, it has become a fact of life for millions. The issue becomes how to keep restless digital natives engaged when the task you’ve assigned is essential, but downright boring.

Here’s are a few simple suggestions:

1) Make it a game. Regardless of the task, there’s always a way to “gameify” it. How long will it take to . . .? What the least number of steps it will take to . . . ?

2) Turn the task into a competition. While working for a moving company in the 1970’s, I and a co-worker were assigned to tighten the bolts, lubricate the wheels and burn the company name into 1000 furniture dollies. We turned this three-day project into a competition. The loser bought lunch.

3) Distract them with a mental challenge. I’ve seen ski-lift operators yell out questions from Trivial Pursuit to those waiting in line, for instance. The first person to yell out the correct answer, gets to jump the line. How can you adapt this?

4) Argue with them. Yes, that’s what I said. I wouldn’t bring up politics and social issues. But TV shows, sports, and most every other topic is fair game and can make the time fly.

Once people get invested in a distraction, they’ll forget about checking Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, and the Internet’s other digital memes. It just takes a little re-framing.

Critical Thinking: The Economy’s “Other” Skills Gap

A lot has been written recently about the skills gap facing today’s economy. Researchers credit several sources for this phenomenon. First, the Baby Boomers will finally retire in droves over the next decade. Second, there has been a diminished interest in the hard sciences, resulting in a deficit of healthcare professionals and scientific researchers. Third, significantly fewer young people are choosing the skilled trades as a career. This is creating headaches for contractors, manufacturers and service companies. (It is also why we pay plumbers $100 just to walk through the front door.)

But there’s another skills gap that is dogging the productivity of virtually every organization in the US. That’s the deficit of critical thinking and problem solving skills among those entering the workforce. It’s what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann calls “an invisible tax on the bottom line.” Ask the average employer. He or she will relate story after story of young workers who lack “common sense.” Translation? They do not possess the nuanced problem solving skills to perform their jobs independently.

Now, before I’m attacked by the Millennial hordes seeking my scalp, let me stipulate that there are millions in this generation who are contributing to our economy in amazing ways. But for every one of them, there is a multiple of those the same age lacking the basic thinking skills that will enable them to thrive in their jobs. Tragically this includes those both graduating from high school and college.

Responsibility for this phenomenon is shared among a number of sources: 1) The influence of digital technology, resulting in “menu-driven thinking,” defined as an over-dependence on digital cues; 2) The breakdown of the familial structure from which those in past generations learned norms and practices essential to the development of critical thinking skills and the confidence to use them; 3) Societal messaging focusing on convenience, immediate outcomes, and victimization. (“If I can’t figure it out, it’s not my fault. Something or someone else is to blame.”)

But playing the blame game will not resolve this issue. Neither will public policy. Billions of dollars have been spent on education legislation including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. These have not, however, resulted in any measureable improvement in the problem-solving skills of those graduating from high school. Yes, many have been taught the principles of critical thinking. But here’s the thing . . . teaching students how to think critically does not produce critical thinkers. Compelling them to think critically does. Sadly, so much time is spent on content delivery in the average classroom, little time is left for application. Yes, they can pass the state assessments. But many struggle to thrive in the average workplace.

As much as employers might object to the added burden, it falls to them to correct this situation. This has to be accomplished in three ways:

Improve employee selection. I’ve written and spoken extensively on hiring over the years. What I hammer home each time is the use of practical applications during the screening process. Let’s face it, interviews don’t work. Compelling applicants to demonstrate their thinking skills is the closest you’ll get to ensuring an accurate evaluation of how they can perform on the job. Experiencing a shortage of applicants who meet these requirements? Hire the best you can find and be prepared to train and coach them from the get-go. At least you’ll know in advance where the work is needed.

Partner with local schools. This advice has been shouted from the rooftops for years, yet I am shocked at how few employers reach out in this manner. Want the best local people? Talk to those who teach them. If you don’t plant seeds, nothing will grow. I’ve met employers who have had great success acquiring good people just by being more present in the community. Buy a lunch. Teach a class. Serve on a workforce panel. Sponsor a contest. The ideas are endless. Over time, educators in the know will call you first when they spot top talent. (Note: In some cases there are publicly funded resources and incentives that will compensate employer for hiring and training for certain skills. These may be applicable to your needs. Local schools and agencies should be familiar with the requirements and processes.)

Train on critical thinking and decision skills from day-one. Just because they graduated from high school, college, or trade school, doesn’t mean they understand how work works. They have book smarts. You want work smarts. Some will arrive with it. Others, not so much. Assess their reasoning skills and build from there. Some will catch on faster than others. Some will possess more native confidence to try new things than others. Meet them where they are and stretch. One leader I know used to say, “Take 5’10” people and put them in 6’0” jobs. Remember, this is up to individual managers. All the training in the world won’t help if the supervision is inadequate. That’s up to organizational leadership.