Forward thinking and proper planning are essential, gold standard business practices. But is it possible that we’re limiting ourselves by only thinking in one direction? David Allan Van of Let's Take a Closer Look addresses the idea of approaching planning in reverse.
Why Did Our Plan Fail?
The senior executives decided the company needed a state-of-the-art customer service program.
They appointed a Project Team and directed them to implement the vision. The team’s first task was to write an action plan. They spent weeks putting together a detailed outline of everything that needed to be done.
When the plan had been written, facilitators introduced the team to the Pre-mortem, a tool that:
Encourages a search for threats
Frees the imagination
Harvard Business Review says “Pre-mortems don’t just help teams to identify potential problems. They also reduce the kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed by people who are over-invested in a project.”
With that background, the facilitators presented the following scenario to the team:
Imagine we are a year into the future. We implemented our plan as it now exists, and the outcome was a disaster. Take 10 minutes and identify every reason you can think of for that disaster.
Putting thoughts in writing is crucial, because it avoids the groupthink problem of people agreeing with others even when they don’t. Psychologists say groupthink discourages the kind of healthy disagreement that is a necessary part of good decision-making.
Reasons for Failure
Here are seven reasons identified by the team, grouped by frequency of mentions:
Mentioned by almost everyone:
Mentioned by three out of four:
Mentioned by two out of three:
The basic assumption is flawed
Then we organized the same data a different way – by area of responsibility – and saw a different picture.
Senior Leadership failures included:
The basic assumption is flawed
Project Team failures included:
A Quick Analysis
The first way of grouping these reasons for failure implies that those elements with more mentions are more important. This is possible, but not necessarily so. The second way is more telling: The biggest reasons for failure were the responsibility of senior leadership.
Every plan is imperfect and every activity will encounter problems, but some problems are bigger than others. Experienced business people know that inadequate technology and inadequate funding are each capable of independently guaranteeing failure.
And here’s an even bigger kicker: if the initial assumption is flawed, the entire undertaking is a pointless waste of resources. In this case, the senior executives had handed marching orders to the team instead of asking them to first determine the nuts-and-bolts feasibility of the vision.
The project? It was abandoned.
As Van proposes, pre-mortem planning eliminates avoidable threats to success. The practice is applicable to those at all levels, as it addresses concerns of those shelling out responsibilities, as well as those responsible for seeing them to completion. I am drawn to the idea that our imaginations are freed of the constraints of linear outline, and I am curious about the ways in which we limit them in other facets of business. What other failures could we be avoiding?