His principle research interest is in how to use intuition effectively, which led to some of his work being described in Malcolm Gladwell’s huge-selling book, “Blink”.
One of the tools that Klein has developed is what he calls the “pre-mortem” exercise. This is a technique that should be familiar to all project managers.
In a post-mortem, we look at the tattered remains of a failed project and try to figure out what went wrong. In a pre-mortem, Gary Klein suggests, we should imagine that our as-yet un-started project has failed failed spectacularly. With this assumption as a starting point, we then proceed to figure out what might have caused it.
A Shift in Perspective
This is different from the more familiar risk identification process, where we try and think of all of the things that can go wrong. Notice what this shift in perspective from “what could go wrong?” to “what has gone wrong?” does. One of the biggest sources of failure of a project is over-confidence. We have too much faith in our team, our assumptions, our planning, our execution capability. This blinds us to many potential sources of failure.
In the pre-mortem process, we can skip past this by starting with the presumption that the project will fail. It team members can be made to think that this has happened, then they will work hard to find explanations for the failure and, in so doing, will unearth all sorts of risks. By now it is too late to say: “but that could never happen” because we have entertained the real possibility that it might.
Accessing personal experience is one of six approaches I offer for identifying risk, in “Risk Happens!” The pre-mortem is one the techniques under that heading.
The “so what?”
Break the cycle of assuming your project will succeed and thinking risk management is just about dealing with the frustrations along the way. Start looking for the hidden “unknown knowns” that will cause it to fail, if you don’t find them and tackle them.
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