One Exercise That Can Save Your Project From Failure

By Anna Slyusareva

Recent research results provide worrisome project management statistics. In 2016, Project Management Institute reported that companies lose $122 million for every $1 billion invested due to underperforming projects. An IBM study showed that nearly 60% of projects don’t meet their objectives. So why do many projects fail to deliver expected results?

Professionals offer many explanations, including incorrect allocation of resources, communication errors, and lack of team planning. While it is possible to list many potential reasons in retrospect, we can’t travel back in time to correct mistakes or adjust for previously unforeseen circumstances. What about traveling to the future in our imagination? This kind of trip is definitely possible.

Introducing a Project Premortem

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman discussed a very simple yet effective exercise to identify weak areas in a project plan. Kahneman referred to the exercise proposed by a psychologist Gary Klein who dubbed it “premortem.” After project plan has been developed, Klein suggested for a leader to convene a project team and ask them to write as many scenarios as they can for a project’s failure. Klein advised asking the following question: “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.”

In order to account for potential planning mistakes, Klein proposed taking the following steps:

  1. Set up a brainstorming session with all people involved in the project.
  2. Ask the team to picture a project’s failure a year from the current moment and urge each person to devise as many project disaster scenarios as he/she can come up with.
  3. Let each member read one main idea from his/her list out loud.
  4. Record all scenarios.
  5. Adjust the project plan accordingly to avoid the most plausible among all described versions.

There are several significant benefits that come from conducting a project premortem. Here are a few of the biggest traps you can avoid in your project with a premortem.

AVOID: Confirmation Bias

Such exercise helps to overcome several decision-making traps that project teams often face. First one is the confirming-evidence trap. We often seek evidence that supports our own point of view and disregards facts that oppose it. According to John Hammond, Ralph Keeney, and Howard Raiffa, we can fall into this trap by considering only facts that correspond to our vision of the situation. Moreover, confirming-evidence bias affects the way we interpret new information.

For example, a manager who favors adopting new bidding software to improve purchasing practices for his department, in a search for independent analysis, might turn to a consulting firm that strongly advocates implementing new technologies. By consulting only with professionals who support his point of view, the purchasing manager can miss an opportunity to have an alternative opinion that focuses on improving current practices and considers downsides of implementing new bidding software. Premortem session provides the advantage of evaluating a project on multiple levels without getting too focused on certain outcomes.

AVOID: Blinding Groupthink

Another psychological bias that often affects a team working on a project is groupthink. Popularized in a Fortune article in 1952, the term implies conformity and reluctance to speak against group conclusions. We all have been told time and again that attitude matters. Outlining negative consequences of a project might be perceived as a wrong attitude, prompting team members to stay silent about their reservations. Moreover, when a decision is made, each team member is tempted to look at the problem from the same angle.

By encouraging managers to think about potential weaknesses in the project plan during the project premortem session, a team leader provides a relief from the fear of being understood as a disloyal to the project person.

AVOID: Overconfidence

Not less insidious than previous two, overconfidence trap influences the accuracy of our predictions—we often overestimate our performance and put more weight on our own judgment. Overconfident and overly optimistic, we often fall into the planning fallacy—the propensity to underestimate the time needed to complete the project. Consider the following experiment where 37 students were asked to estimate a date when they expect to submit their theses. Do you think students met deadlines they set for themselves? If your answer is no, you are right. Giving themselves 33.9 days, on average, to complete and submit dissertations, students actually took 55.5 days.

Perhaps, reminded of your college experience, you are not surprised. Nevertheless, the tendency to focus on positive outcomes only, disregarding historical data, is a real and perilous trap that can seriously harm or even ruin the project. A project premortem session intentionally turns the team’s attention to negative outcomes, thus helping to overcome the planning fallacy.

A session performing a project premortem takes only a few hours, but it might help to identify critical plan gaps and act on them before the failure is inevitable.

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Anna Slyusareva
Anna Slyusareva is an independent marketing consultant with a broad experience in developing and executing brand strategy for both Fortune 500 and early-stage companies in North America and Europe.

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