How Planning for Failure Can Help Ensure You Don’t Fail

We all want things we’re working on to be successful. Nobody ever plans to fail… but wait, planning for failure can be a useful exercise.

The term ‘premortem’ comes to us from the field of project management. According to the Harvard Business Review:

“A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. […] 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.”

Instead of considering what might go wrong, you ‘pretend’ your initiative has already failed. Then you brainstorm to come up with all the possible reasons for the failure. This gives you the perspective of hindsight, which works differently than foresight. And you can see that this also ties into risk.

A simple example might be when I decide to make a special offer. The obvious failure would be if nobody buys it. Why didn’t anyone buy it? Was it because I didn’t reach enough people with it? Or because my marketing copy was not good? Or because my target market just doesn’t want/need this new thing? I can take extra care to distribute widely, make sure my copy is top-notch, and do more research. This will clearly identify what I don’t know.

In this example, after doing the best I can, I’m more aware of the potential risks involved too. If the only investment is my own time, the risk might be worth taking. If there’s a big expense involved, the risk is higher and deserves this extra attention.

I’m an eternal optimist so thinking of failure is hard for me but it also makes me think more realistically about the possible outcomes of my actions. If the risk is high, a premortem is more important.

What about you? Will you give a premortem a try for your next big initiative?