You Can See the Future: The Pre-mortem Technique

You DO have a crystal ball or a time machine and YES, you can see into the future with this magic tool.  This tool is called, the “Pre-mortem technique.”  It was developed by Gary Klein, and you can read about it in his book called, The Power of Intuition.  Ok, so the name may not be as interesting as a literal time machine, but if you use it, you will find that you start to have super powers in the direction your life or project is heading.

This tool is very versatile and can be used for:

  • any project, big or small.
  • planning your own life.
  • to find the right steps to success
  • to find the pitfalls/risks that need to be addressed

Depending on how you are using it, you can do this exercise with:

  • a project team
  • your family
  • your spouse/partner
  • yourself

There are also two ways to “see the future,” through a disaster lens or through the delight lens.

Let’s start with a major disaster exercise:

  1. Seclude you, or the group you plan to lead through this exercise. You will need some simple materials:  clean paper or sticky notes, a white board, markers.
  2. Tell the story (or imagine the story if you are alone.) If you are using this tool to plan your future life, you can pick a time in the future where you are going to picture yourself.  If you are using this for a project, focus on the finished project.
  3. Begin to imagine… Everything has gone horribly wrong, you have been fired from your job, you have no money, your husband left you, your kids hate you. If it is a project, imagine that you were pulled as the project manager, because everything went wrong, costs were running out of control, there was no way to meet the schedule, and nothing was performing the way it should be.  Really focus on this imagined scenario.  Spend 5-10 minutes truly contemplating this dreadful situation.  This is the kind of mess that is humiliating.  Everything that can go wrong did go wrong.
  4. You think… What in the world could have caused this mess?!  Take a few minutes and think about why this situation occurred.
  5. If you are in a group, use the sticky notes and have everyone write down everything that could have caused this problem. If it is you, brainstorming about your life, then you can list as fast as you can, every single thing you believe may have caused your personal life and career to go bad.  List even the silly things, just list it all!  Take about 5 minutes for this exercise.
  6. If this is a group exercise, have everyone place their stickies on the board.
  7. Prioritize the list, these become the “RISKS” that need to be mitigated to achieve your goal. Focus on the highest priority risks first, then work on plans to mitigate the others.
  8. Revisit your list as part of your goal review process to make sure you are on track and that you are accounting for the risks you have identified.

Now let’s have fun dreaming with the delight exercise:

Now that you have gone through the “Disaster” pre-mortem process, you can try the “Delight” pre-mortem technique.  In this method, you do the exact same steps, except instead of imaging everything went wrong, imagine everything went perfectly well, that your wildest dreams came true, you are living the life you have always imagined.  Put yourself in a place, five to ten years from now and explain what an amazing life you are living.  Make it as detailed as you possibly can.  Include career, family, hobbies, home, etc.  If you are using this tool for a project of some type, imagine that everything went better than you could have dreamed.  You finished below cost, faster than expected, and you were able to get maximum capability built into the project.

  1. Seclude you, or the group you plan to lead through this exercise. You will need some simple materials:  clean paper or sticky notes, a white board, markers.
  2. Tell the story (or imagine the story if you are alone.) If you are using this tool to plan your future life, you can pick a time in the future where you are going to picture yourself.  If you are using this for a project, focus on the finished project.
  3. Begin to imagine… this is the amazing alternate future where everyone is delighted with your project or where you are delighted with you own life.
  4. Think, “Wow, this is so amazing, here are all the things that would have had to go right for this amazing scenario to have happened!” Take a few minutes to really focus on how you got to such an awesome place.
  5. Brainstorm all of the things that must have went right. If it is group, have them write on stickies, and if you are doing this exercise alone, capture it all on a sheet of paper.
  6. If this is a group exercise, have everyone place their stickies on the board.
  7. Prioritize the list, these become some of the key steps you need to complete in order to achieve your goal. Focus on the highest priority tasks first, as they should be the ones that will make the biggest impact on your success.
  8. Revisit your list as part of your goal review process to make sure you are on track!

If you conduct both of these techniques at the beginning of your projects or to focus on your life goals, you will increase your chances for success by up to 30%, according to research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado.

This is a fun way of capturing the steps toward greatness and the associated risks for any project or goal!

Photo by Valerie Everett

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