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From postmortem to premortem: need for a strategic change

By G. Balasubramanian

There was a lot of heat and fume in the on-going meeting. “How could this happen?” – the question from the chief was not unwarranted, but he spoke completely dissociating the responsibility he had with the entire planning or as one who is supposed to be mentoring the whole program.

“Sir, there was a total breakdown of electricity in the entire city and transformers were down. We couldn’t go ahead with the overnight printing as planned.” The department head spoke. “But you should have anticipated it’ retorted the chief. “Sir, we had three different venues in the city to do the job. But the entire city was down for nearly four hours which caused the delay.” The chief wasn’t convinced.

“Sir, we shouldn’t have done this on Sunday. There was quite a crowd which was not anticipated.” Said the Public Relations officer. The chief replied “That is a lame excuse. That shows our lack of preparedness.”

The postmortem of events is indeed an unpleasant process though it may be necessary to learn the following lessons:

a. It helps to learn from the mistakes.

b. It helps to identify the critical spots where the system could go wrong.

c. It can help to identify the perceived misgivings about the process.

d. It can help in fixing responsibilities and accountabilities.

e. It can help to identify systemic defects and in process flows.

f. It can help is examining alternative strategies for the future.

g. It can help in understanding and implementing suitable environments for success.

And after the postmortem meeting, the systems return to normalcy with one or two lessons, here and there, to face the next eventuality.

“The dead have never bothered me. It's the living that I fear,” Says Patricia Cornwell, the internationally celebrated author, in her first novel “Postmortem.” Truly, postmortem is an exercise structured with different names by different organizations and different systems to suit their own work culture and professional environment. What finally matters is not only the outcome of these exercises, but the hard-core lessons learnt and the way they are used as feedback to the better health of a system. The postmortem for a problem can be the preamble to a solution.” says Dan Heath of the Duke University. The post-mortem analysis is a tool for an organization or a company for effective knowledge management. The team members gain new insight and knowledge alongside experiences that support future design. Further it helps to broaden the knowledge of the individual employee along the way.

Postmortem is not to be necessarily viewed with a contemptuous or a negative mindset. With the use of different terminologies for different contexts, it can also function as a powerful exercise for re-engineering or reinforcement of processes. It helps to identify the strengths in the system and also the possibilities for either a more inclusive approach to problem handling or a more diverse approach to expand possibilities. A sudden decrease in the number of admissions to an educational institution, a significant change in the learning curve or normal distribution curves in learning centres, a sudden decline of numbers in a market, a change in the consumption pattern of the customers and a sudden polarization of traffic to a given destination and the like are indeed matters of concern in social systems. They often call not only for a periodic review but a postmortem on time to make systemic corrections. “Conducting a premortem creates a path to function as our own red team. Once we frame the exercise as “Okay, we failed. Why did we fail?” that frees everyone to identify potential points of failure they otherwise might not see or might not bring up for fear of being viewed as a naysayer. People can express their reservations without it sounding like they’re saying the planned course of action is wrong. Because of that, a planning process that includes a premortem creates a much healthier organization because it means that the people who do have dissenting opinions are represented in the planning.” says Annie Duke, an advisor in decision-making strategies.

Says Dr. Gary Klein, the research psychologist, in Harvard Business Review “A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.” He adds, “In the end, a premortem may be the best way to circumvent any need for a painful postmortem.”

In contrast to the postmortem, a premortem appears to be a wiser exercise which helps the organizations to put their projects in place wisely. Some advantages of the premortem includes:

a. Bringing together all stakeholders for an understanding and an open debate

b. Creating a shared vision for the implementation and dynamics

c. Identifying the crossroads, roadblocks and potholes in the journey

d. Identifying the critical points that could cause a possible distress.

e. Drawing a more flexible approach with alternate strategies that are not surprises.

f. Assigning responsibilities and delegation to counter shocks on the way

g. Creating trust and credibility to the process through ownership

“A pre-mortem typically starts with the leader asking everyone in the team to imagine that the project has gone horribly wrong and to write down the reasons why on a piece of paper. He or she then asks everyone to read a single reason from the list, starting with the project manager, before going around the table again” argues Matthew Syed, the journalist and commentator in his book “Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success.” A premortem possibly opens the gateways for collective responsibility by ushering a sense of better safety and security into the system.

Several organizations tend to jump into the project implementations even without a design or a plan, in view of their curiosity to be faster and farther than others in their rat race. Sometimes the negative results inflicting their existing status costs them more than what they could have otherwise achieved. Time spent on a premortem is indeed a meaningful and purposeful use which could save a lot of time, resources and wealth of the organization apart from the person-hours they would have spent while implementation.

Premortem is a proactive approach to identify risks and in the risk assessment as well as in the risk management in each system. However, Daniel Kahneman, the celebrated psychologist observes ““The premortem is not a panacea and does not provide complete protection against nasty surprises, but it goes some way toward reducing the damage of plans that are subject to the biases of WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) and uncritical optimism.”

The need for a premortem for projects as an integral strategy is worth examining by organizations.