Gary Klein’s advice for avoiding disaster

Ever notice how obvious some mistakes look in hindsight? Something about looking back on what happened – that backward perspective – changes how you assess things.

So along comes Gary Klein with an exercise to help get around these types of problems. He calls it a Pre-Mortem.

We know about Post-Mortems, where doctors investigate a dead body to figure out what happened. How did this person die? What was the the cause? What can we learn from it?

[Update: I published the extra “the” in the sentence but didn’t realize it until nine months later. Then I realized it at first glance.]

The problem with Post-Mortems is that they don’t do much for the dead body. The body is still dead.

So what if you changed it up? What if you did all that post stuff before death?

Instead of waiting for your project to die, instead of waiting for your body to burn out, instead of waiting for disaster to strike, look at it as though it’s already happened. Before you even start, consider how you might fail.

  • What would be the biggest disaster?
  • What would cause that?
  • How would it happen?
  • And then of course the important question, what can you do to prevent it?

Thing is, once you have the problem in mind, it’s usually much easier to figure out how to avoid it. Once you know how you might fail big time, it’s easier to prepare for that. Most of the problems that seem so obvious in hindsight are only problems because they completely blindsided you. You didn’t see them coming.

A Pre-Mortem is a way to preempt those disasters. Imagine it died. Now, why did that happen?

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