Banner Img
Culture Change


Chris Harrison

April 10, 2024

Does it sometimes feel that your business is fuelled more by optimism than reality? Do your colleagues tell you that customers are happy or (as in the case of a business I once encountered) that ‘no one’s complained yet’?

Without putting a damper on things, there’s a very effective exercise you can run to perform a reality check on a big customer or a strategic project. I first came across it when I worked for the Ad Agency Saatchi & Saatchi. We called it ‘Why did we lose the client?’ and used it to assess potential risks and problems in an apparently healthy client relationship.

Some years later, the cognitive psychologist Gary Klein of Applied Research Associates in Ohio formalised this into an approach he called Pre-Mortem. He proposed it as a tool to increase the probability of a project's success by identifying potential risks at the outset, rather than waiting until the project has failed to evaluate it. Despite its ghoulish name, its efficacy has been proven in various fields, including business, healthcare, and intelligence. I have coached it in culture transformation projects and found it to improve risk assessment and decision-making by encouraging teams to think critically and creatively about potential challenges and opportunities. My advice would be not to do it too often, or you’ll create a culture of anxiety!

You can Google more detail but here are the steps you can take to set up a Pre-Mortem exercise:

1. Set the stage: Create a safe and open environment for your team. Explain the purpose of the Pre-Mortem exercise and use storytelling techniques to make the exercise engaging and immersive.

2. Imagine a disaster: Encourage your team to envision a future where the project has failed. Have them close their eyes and imagine themselves in that future. Help them to create a vivid mental image of the project's failure.

3. Generate reasons for failure: Get them to do this individually before sharing. Encourage them to avoid placing blame.

4. Evaluate and plan: As a team, evaluate the consolidated lists of potential reasons for failure and rework the plan accordingly. Balance concerns by identifying known strengths. Highlighting these keeps the team moving in the right direction.

Pre-Mortem is a good way to improve the openness of your company culture and improve trust. Encouraging participants to explore different perspectives and possibilities helps to foster innovation (the capability most companies claim, but few demonstrate). Capitalise on the learning value of the exercise by encouraging participants to gain insights and improve their skills. And don’t forget to celebrate success because the disaster hasn’t yet happened!