Future-proof your next project with one simple hack

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. How many dollars (not to mention hours) could have been saved on failed or delayed projects if only the causes were identified and addressed in advance? An average of $28M per firm per year, according to research by Couchbase – and that’s just related to digital transformation.

Many businesses struggle to anticipate and address problems before they arise. This is partly because acknowledging the prospect of failure is rarely politically expedient – it suggests competency gaps, and so can feel threatening to individuals. Discussion in teams is often too subjective or subject to groupthink (the phenomenon where an unconscious desire for group harmony leads to dysfunctional decision-making). And confirmation bias suggests that people tend to favour information that fits pre-existing beliefs, rather than seeing where the data leads us. Without the benefit of a teleportation device (as yet unavailable on Amazon), what can be done?

The answer lies in a simple technique called the pre-mortem. Here’s how to do it.

Set aside at least one hour. Get your team together. Establish a safe space in which open, direct and forensic conversation can take place. (If creating psychological safety is a struggle, hire an experienced coach or facilitator.)

Now, imagine that you are sat together in 12-18 months’ time. Everything has fallen apart: the project has not hit its business objectives, the timelines and budget are blown, and the intended objectives look like a naive dream. What’s worse, the failure is fast becoming notorious, to the extent that you and your colleagues are worried about your jobs. Don’t try and gloss all this – get uncomfortable and stare the full horror of failure right in the face.

Now answer the following questions, offering time for individual reflection before coming together to compare notes:

  • How did the project die?
  • What killed it?
  • When did things start to fall apart?
  • What were the warning signs?
  • What will be said on its tombstone?
  • What will be its survivors’ biggest regret?
  • What should we have done to save it?

The last question is the most important: in asking what should have been done, it defines what we need to do now in order to prevent failure. But asking the others (along with any that you might care to add) is also vital to establish context. Inaccurate or vague problem diagnosis tends to lead to poor quality solutions.

As you seek answers, try to avoid generalisations. For example, “make everyone accountable” is not that helpful in defining preventative action. Although accountability might be an issue in your organisation (it often is), it will not be improved by making what is essentially a vague statement of behavioural intent. “Create a weekly reporting forum” or “align bonus structures to individual performance metrics” are examples of more practical answers. They are likely to prove far more effective.

When you have reviewed the outputs as a team, collate the resulting actions, then prioritise and implement them. On long projects, it is worth checking in against the original diagnosis every three months. Pre-mortems are like every other business management tool: practice makes perfect.

The pre-mortem is effective for a few reasons. First, it enables valuable but latent insight to be accessed. Second, it creates the basis for open and direct discussion about potential issues (provided the space in which it is conducted is non-threatening). Finally, in objectifying the possibility of failure, it accesses your people’s innate problem-solving capability.

Try it on your next project, and you might be surprised with what you discover. To quote William Blake in full: “hindsight is a wonderful thing, but foresight is better, especially when it comes to saving life, or some pain!”

Originally published on Forbes.com