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Why you need a time machine to make big decisions

Knowing the right thing to do provides no advantage unless you actually do it. Our research on scaling uncovered all too many teams and organizations where people were well aware of the pitfalls ahead and could list the steps required to spread some brand of excellence as an organization or change program expanded. Yet they still screwed-up and failed to act on what they knew – often suffering from a deadly combination of illusion, incompetence, and impatience, symptoms of what my co-author Huggy Rao and I call a “scaling clusterfug.”

Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman’s favorite approach for making better decisions can help you and your team avert such fiascos. This might sound weird, but it’s a form of imaginary time travel. It is called a “premortem.” Kahneman credits psychologist Gary Klein with inventing the premortem technique and using it to help many project teams avert real failures and the ugly postmortems that often follow.

A scaling premortem works something like this: When your team is on the verge of making and implementing a big decision, call a meeting and ask each member to imagine that it is, say, a year later. Split them into two groups. Have one group imagine that the effort was an UNMITIGATED DISASTER. Have the other pretend it was a ROARING SUCCESS. Ask each member to work independently and generate reasons, or better yet, write a story, about why the success or failure occurred.

Instruct them to be as detailed as possible and, as Klein emphasizes, to identify causes they wouldn’t usually mention “for fear of being impolitic.” Next, have each person in the “failure” group read their list or story aloud and record and collate the reasons. Repeat this process with the “success” group. Finally, use the reasons from both groups to strengthen your scaling plan. If you uncover overwhelming and impassable roadblocks, then go back to the drawing board.

Premortems spur people to use “prospective hindsight,” or, in grammatical terms, to think and talk in “future perfect tense.” So, instead of thinking “We will devote the next six months to spreading patient-centered care,” travel to the future and think “We will have devoted six months to spreading patient-centered care.” Now comes the critical element: You imagine that a concrete success or failure has occurred and look “back from the future” to tell a story about the causes. For example, in 2001, Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy and her team wrote a make-believe 2005 Wall Street Journal article about the company’s resounding success. This mock article listed performance metrics and quotes from experts about the specific steps that Xerox had taken to achieve a stunning turnaround during the prior four years. This “look back from the future” motivated and guided them over the coming years as they brought back Xerox from the verge of bankruptcy and transformed it into a viable company.

Pretending that a success or failure has already occurred – and looking back and inventing the details of why it happened — seems almost absurdly simple. Yet renowned scholars including Kahneman, Klein, and Karl Weick show that this approach generates better decisions, predictions, and plans. Looking “back from the future” helps people overcome blind spots, especially to bridge short-term and long-term thinking (a hallmark of successful scaling, as I discuss in this earlier LinkedIn piece). Weick shows that it is far easier to imagine the detailed causes of a single outcome (such as a horrible failure) than to imagine many possible outcomes and try to explain why each might have happened. In addition, analyzing a single event as if it HAS already occurred rather than pretending it MIGHT occur makes it seem more concrete and likely to actually happen, which motivates people to devote more attention to explaining it. Indeed, experiments by Wharton Business School’s Deborah Mitchell and her colleagues showed that prospective hindsight, or imagining that an event has already occurred, “increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.”

Looking back from the future also dampens excessive optimism, especially if the imagined outcome is a failure, mediocre, or falls just short of being as wonderful as expected. Kahneman and many other researchers have found that most people overestimate the chances that good things will happen to them and underestimate the odds they will face failures, delays, and setbacks. He adds “in general, organizations really don’t like pessimists” and when naysayers raise risks and drawbacks, they are viewed as “almost disloyal.” Klein’s research and work with leadership teams indicates that premortems undercut the “damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed by people who are overinvested in a project.” In the hands of a skilled facilitator, a premortem creates a competition where members feel accountable for raising obstacles that others haven’t. Klein says: “The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems.”

As well-orchestrated premortem can also shatter illusions that everyone on a team concurs with a decision that is about to be made or that everyone believes an effort is going well and will continue to do so. Powerful and overconfident leaders often reward people who agree with them and punish those who are brave enough (or perhaps dumb enough) to disagree with their delusions. The resulting corrosive conformity is evident when people don’t raise private doubts, known risks, and inconvenient facts.

Klein describes a premortem with a Fortune 50 company where a senior executive imagined that a billion dollar environmental project had failed because the CEO who championed it had retired – and the new CEO wasn’t committed to the project’s success. This possibility had never occurred to the CEO was pushing the project. Similarly, when Huggy Rao ran a premortem with an executive team that was on the verge of launching a company-wide innovation project, the Senior Vice-President in charge admitted the team had just raised numerous roadblocks and “ticking time bombs” that they never had mentioned before – even though they had been planning the rollout for months. In a proper premortem, voicing such impolitic bad news and risks is safe, expected, and encouraged.

Finally, in addition to imaginary time travel, another way to reduce the risk of scaling culsterfugs is to pretend that, rather than working on your own scaling project, you are coaching someone else. Ask yourself and your team something like “If you were advising another team in the same situation you are in right now, what would you tell them?” Harvard’s Max Bazerman demonstrates that people are less prone to irrational optimism when they make predictions about the fate of others’ projects or businesses rather than their own. Bazerman observes that, when it comes to home construction or renovation projects, most people estimate that their friends’ projects will run 25% to 50% late and over budget. But those same people estimate their own projects will be “completed on time and near the projected costs.”

The world needs dreamers and their dreams. Without them, there would be no new and wonderful inventions and there would never be any inspired new ideas to spread far and wide. But dreams of what is possible are best balanced with hard facts and realistic projections about what is probable. Looking back from the future and imagining that you are giving someone else advice increase the odds that the dreams you choose to chase do, in fact, come true.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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