Pre-mortems, Multi-stakeholder, Risk

Pre-mortems: Lessons from hindsight - beforehand

Hilary Sutcliffe







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Doh!  Why didn't I think of that before?

Innovation is risky at the best of times.  But there are many reasons why innovations fail - the more obvious financial, commercial, scientific or technical ones you may feel you’ve got covered - but what about the social, ethical or environmental issues which may derail your cherished plans?


It’s easy to see what went wrong with hindsight.  In the Post-mortem of a disaster the miss-steps seem obvious and often entirely preventable.  If only…..


Pre-Mortems are a way of learning the lessons of hindsight - beforehand.  


What is a Pre-mortem?

A Pre-mortem is a way of exploring the potential risks and downsides of a project, a technology, a product, or almost any decision, by envisioning it has failed and working back from the failure to explore what might have led to it.  It’s an alternative to the ‘let’s think what could go wrong’ approach, which works forward from the present, which we and others have found is often not as effective as hoped in imagining tangible risks.


Pre-mortems tap into the human brain’s preference for the concrete rather than the abstract and by making the outcome, eg failure, a certainty, tries to by-pass the difficulties we have in generating explanations for uncertain outcomes rather than sure ones - in particular the not-so-obvious or controversial possibilities. 


It works well to understand what might go right also - building back from a runaway success to explore the detail of what might have contributed to a positive outcome is also very useful. 


Why is it a good idea?

We’ve run a number of ‘let’s think what could go wrong’ approaches in the past and like Pre-Mortems better as a methodology for these reasons:


1   It puts the focus on specifics

Many of us have been to meetings where the risks of a certain technology or product are debated.  Often the concerns discussed and risks envisaged are so generic, abstract or theoretical that it’s hard to get to grips with them or see a clear pathway of relevance to the area under discussion.  Pre-mortems focus attention at a level of detail that avoids spending too much time in the stratosphere.


2   It legitimises dissent

Voicing concerns about someone’s cherished project is hard; doing it in detail, in front of them, harder still.  Many of us are nervous of saying negative things in front of others and keep our real or more controversial fears to ourselves.  Sometimes the project leader is so dominant and certain of their success, there is little room for dissent constructive debate, or someone has a niggle that they wanted to bring up but their wasn't the opportunity.  This methodology facilitates a much more open and less stressful approach to searching for faults in the plan. 


3   It generates a positive discussion about threats

Other methods often pit the owners of the project with those trying to pick holes in it; forcing the owners to try to defend their idea which can result in confrontation and defensiveness.  Other methodologies can lead to rows about the plausibility of risks or the legitimacy of the views expressed. By taking the project owners out of the context of defending their ideas, this approach generates a much more positive discussion about risks, threats and uncertainties. 


4   It involves stakeholders in constructive debate

The involvement of stakeholders is increasingly an important component of risk assessment and due diligence in responsible innovation.  Sectors such such as aeronautics and healthcare innovation have been doing this successfully for some time.


Pre-mortems are a more influential and less confrontational approach which allows for a constructive interaction between stakeholders, improving the quality of debate and potential impact assessment.


5   It improves people’s ability to predict reasons for future outcomes by 30%

Although evidence is still limited on the effectiveness of this approach, that which has been done is interesting.  Research suggests using pre-mortems, or the more technical term ‘prospective hindsight’ can improve people’s ability to predict reasons for future outcomes quite significantly, and generating much more specific potential outcomes which are more useful to decision makers.  Though there is no research to indicate if it makes it more likely that anyone actually learns from the process and acts on the potential problems in advance!


The difference in outcome appears in part due to the methodology helping override our natural optimism.  Simply by the act of thinking about risks in advance, as opposed to just ignoring them and hoping they don’t happen, we generate more useful information.  But also, more intriguingly, the focus on the single event (the failure) in place of the exercise of having to imagine multiple reasons something could go wrong, makes the potential outcome seem more concrete.  This uses our brain’s natural inclination to motivate people to giving more attention to the specifics and therefore become more effective at prediction.


6    It’s flexible

Unlike some methodologies which really only work well over a number of days, a Pre-mortem can be conducted effectively in just a few hours, though we feel a full day is preferable. For example,  the morning could focus on the Pre-mortem from the perspective of failure and the afternoon considering it from the perspective of success.   


It can also be the focus for an ongoing programme of stakeholder involvement about different aspects of the innovation - eg considering potential environmental, social, ethical, economic or technical risks individually, or specific themes such as empowerment and disempowerment or human rights.   


7    It’s much more fun way of doing risk analysis!

Meetings about risk are rarely that much fun.  However, this methodology provides a very engaging format which helps break down hierarchies and relationship boundaries, making the whole process more enjoyable and making it more likely that attendees participate wholeheartedly.



If you would like to know more…


Hilary would be pleased to talk to you about this approach and explore how it might work for you.  Call her on 07799 625064 or email


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