By Geof Lory

I'm sure that most project teams are familiar with the concept of a postmortem. It is a deliberate review at a critical stage of a project, a milestone or the completion of the project. Postmortems are effective in raising the consciousness of a team and are essential to the creation of a learning organization. Nothing is more frustrating than spending months struggling on a project only to deliver late and over budget with sub-standard quality, unless it is knowing you are going into your next project and will most likely repeat the same experience. Postmortems are intended to reduce the likelihood of this happening, even if by only a little.

Many organizations I work with find the term "postmortem" negative because of the intimation of death, leaving less than a positive twist on the event. So, I have taken to calling them "retrospectives," a backward look. They serve to check out where we have been and how we have gotten to this point, so we can potentially change where we are going or how we are getting there. If you prefer, since this is the intention, they can also be referred to as "lessons learned." This is a healthy spin on an event that can unfortunately degrade to a blame session if the intent of learning is not maintained. Whatever you call them in your organization, they are invaluable to improving the way in which projects are performed.

But as you probably noticed from the title, this article is not about postmortems. It is about premortems. (I just noticed that my spell checker does not like that word. I'll have to add it to the dictionary.) If postmortems are a look back, premortems are a look forward. Premortems are a form of mental simulation of the future, given the current condition, and applying future actions or options. They are a powerful tool we all use to help make decisions or determine paths on which to proceed.

We all do some form of premortems as a matter of course whenever we are faced with options. We do a quick "what if" in our head to determine the likely future scenarios, and then chose the path of greatest preference or least resistance. Decisions as to which room to hold the status meeting in or whether to stop for gas before or after work can quickly be evaluated with limited consequences or options. For most of these types of decisions, it is not worth the effort to elicit the opinion of the team or document the potential outcomes. Either the result is apparent or the outcomes insignificant.

The greater the impact of the decision, the greater the value of deliberately performing a formal premortem to assess options and outcomes. Premortems become a powerful tool in the process of making effective and efficient decisions. Gary Klein, in Sources of Power - How People Make Decisions, documents that skilled decision-makers employ mental simulation to construct mental models against which they validate their projected results. He presents four major attributes necessary for performing premortems: having the big picture; self-critique; contextual knowledge/experience and a recognition-primed decision model (which is the ability to size up the situation, combining goals, cues, expectancies and actions).

Most of Klein's studies focused on individuals making decisions by themselves and under severe time constraints and life and death pressure, e.g. fighter pilots and emergency medical technicians. Fortunately, most of the decisions we face on our projects rarely carry the same level of intensity, even if at times we may feel extreme pressures of time and consequence. Still, we can exercise the same approach to decision-making as these individuals while leveraging the collective abilities, knowledge and experience of the team.

By including the team in this decision-making process, we increase the collective knowledge and experience and allow for greater scrutiny and critique of options through the diversity of the team. Mining the collective knowledge and experience of the team does require a relentless pursuit of the project goals/vision, a safe team environment where dissenting opinions are freely expressed, and a framework for making decisions.

The role of the project manager can encourage or discourage the use of collective premorteming. On teams where the project manager controls and makes all decisions, team members quickly learn that their contribution is minimized and they will withhold critical information that represents their unique perspective for fear of negative repercussions. The knowledge and experience inputs to the decision-making process are severely weakened, and the quality of the decision will most likely follow suit. Encouraging team decision-making does the exact opposite. Greater and wider perspectives add to the quality of the decision and support continual commitment to the final decision.

When my daughters were young, their limited life experiences justified our parental decision-making model. Not so true now. As teenagers, they know "everything;" certainly more than their parents, who are waning in intelligence with every passing month. Just like those "stupid customers and users" on our projects, we parents know so little, yet still control the purse strings. I'm sure it is as frustrating an experience for my girls as it is for many project teams. Wouldn't it be nice if we -- parents and users -- were involved in their -- teenagers and teams -- decisions to add our perspective and experience? Perhaps we would be, if we were willing to work within their decision-making model. Just a thought.

One of my greatest challenges as a parent is to not assert my premortem abilities and outcomes on my daughters, but rather encourage the development of their ability to premortem for themselves. Because, like it or not, the time is quickly approaching when I will only be involved if invited into their decision-making. A scary thought in today's complicated world.

In a couple weeks, I will be taking both girls to the annual high school Father/Daughter Dinner Dance. Of course this requires new formal dresses, shoes and accessories for both of them. Now, I certainly have my ideas about what constitutes proper attire for this event, as do they. I've done my premortem, as I imagine they have too. So off to the mall we will go, their ideas and my charge card. Whatever their choices, I'm certain I will be the proudest father at the dance.

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