This is the second in a two-part series. You can review part one, here:
Step 4: Imagine that the decision, project, or process definitely failed, and brainstorm reasons for why your plan failed
Next, ask all the stakeholders to imagine that they are in a future where the project or process definitely failed (an approach informed by the Premortem technique). Doing so gives permission to everyone, even the biggest supporters of the project or process, to use their creativity in coming up with possible reasons for failure.
Otherwise, their emotions – which determine 80-90% of our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions – will likely inhibit their ability to accept the possibility of project or process failure. That’s why simply asking everyone to imagine potential problems works much less well.
Supporters of the project experience a defensive emotional response that leaves their minds much less capable of creatively envisioning possible problems.
After giving such permission, have each participant anonymously write out plausible reasons for this disaster. Anonymity is especially important here, due to the potential for political danger in describing potential problems (“the product launch will fail because the marketing department overhyped it, leading to unhappy consumers).
Ask everyone to come up with at least three most plausible failures, while highlighting that the reasons for coming up with these failures is to address them effectively.
These failures should include internal decisions under the control of the project team, such as cost and staffing, as well as potential external events, such as an innovation introduced by a competitor. Encourage participants to focus particularly on reasons they would not typically bring up because it would be seen as rude or impolitic, such as criticizing someone’s competency, or even dangerous to one’s career, such as criticizing the organization’s strategy. Emphasize that everyone’s statements will remain anonymous.
The facilitator gathers everyone’s statements, and then highlights the key themes brought out as reasons for project failure, focusing especially on reasons that would not be typically brought up, and ensuring anonymity in the process.
If you are going through this technique by yourself, write out separate reasons for project or process failure from the perspective of each relevant aspect of yourself.
Going back to Pete’s group, everyone submitted their anonymous reasons for failure. Ann read out the participants’ anonymous statements, highlighting the following key themes:
- The plan failed because it wasn’t communicated in a clear and timely manner. One of the participants raised doubts that management can communicate the plan efficiently due to past cases of miscommunication of company policy changes.
- The plan failed because without a physical presence, the Human Resources and Finance divisions were not able to address issues in an empathetic and precise manner. A participant stated that some HR and Finance cases raised by staff were sensitive in nature and required face-to-face interaction with HR and Finance personnel. Without this, the statement read, employees might feel disconnected from the company and eventually leave.
- The plan failed because the project team didn’t explain technical terms simply enough. A participant raised the issue that some staff and managers from the software and technical teams – including Pete – were not always proficient in explaining technical terms so that non-technical employees can understand them. This could lead to employees having a difficult time in comprehending technical specifications and requirements.
Step 5: Decide on the most likely and serious problems leading to failure
Discuss all the reasons brought up, paying particular attention to ones that are rude, impolitic, and dangerous to careers. Check for potential cognitive biases that might be influencing the assessments.
The most significant ones to watch out for are loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effect.
Then, assess anonymously the probability of each reason for failure, ideally placing percentage probabilities. If doing so is difficult, use terms like “highly likely”, “somewhat likely”, “unlikely”, and “very unlikely.” Also consider how harmful each reason for failure might be, and pay more attention to the ones that are most harmful. Here, the expertise of individual members of the team will be especially useful.
The leader or person assigned as note-taker writes down all the problems brought up, as well as assessments of the probabilities. If you are going through the technique by yourself, get outside input at this stage.
In Pete’s case, the participants agreed that all the key problems brought up in Step 4 – lack of communication, lack of physical human connection, and confusing technical instructions – were somewhat likely, based on historical issues the different divisions had experienced in the past.
Step 6: Brainstorm ways to fix problems and integrate your ideas into the plan
Decide on several failures that are most relevant to focus on, and brainstorm ways of solving these, including how to address potential mental blindspots. Also, discuss any evidence you might use that would serve as a red flag that the failure you are discussing is occurring or about to occur. For this step, it is especially important to have people with authority in the room.
The leader or note-taker writes down the possible solutions. If you are going through the technique by yourself, get outside input at this stage.
Circling back to Pete, the managers who were part of the discussion group took on the task of addressing the problems proactively:
- Pete will discuss the issues tackled in the discussion group with senior management. He will then propose for senior management to send out immediately a company-wide announcement on the migration to telecommuting and the steps that will be taken. Then, each senior manager would have in-person meetings with their direct reports in middle management, to get their buy-in and ensure that the message passed effectively down the chain of command. In turn, the middle managers would meet with the frontline staff and work out details of the next steps for each team.
- The HR manager will coordinate with other division managers to ensure that empathetic practices will be observed before, during, and after the transition to remote work. After senior management sends out its company-wide announcement, HR will then send out communications of its own, to emphasize that employees will remain connected through digital platforms and apps and that issues and concerns will still be addressed quickly. They’d also offer to meet personally with employees to address any and all concerns.
- Finally, Pete will meet with his migration team to ensure that technical requirements and specifications will be communicated using the simplest of terms and that processes are not made too complicated for the end user. After coming up with a final technical plan, he will send out his own email to all employees – to introduce his team and outline the steps that they will be taking in the next four weeks. Then, he would have an in-person meeting to discuss next steps with his team. Likewise, Pete would run his communication plan by HR to ensure his understanding of “simple terms” aligned with HR’s perception of how frontline staff would respond to the messaging.
Step 7: Imagine that the decision, project, or process succeeded spectacularly, brainstorm ways of achieving this outcome, and integrate your ideas into the plan
We addressed failure: now let’s make sure you not simply avoid failure, but maximize success! Next, imagine that you are in a future where the project or process succeeded far beyond what you expected. Have each participant anonymously write out plausible reasons for this success. Next, have the facilitator highlight the key themes.
Discuss all the reasons, and check for the same cognitive biases as above. Evaluate anonymously the probability of each reason for success, and decide which deserve the most attention. Then, brainstorm ways of maximizing each of these reasons for success.
The leader or note-taker writes down the ideas to maximize success. If you are going through the technique by yourself, get outside input at this stage.
In Pete’s discussion group, Ann asked each participant to anonymously write out the reasons for the plan’s success. When Ann read out the statements, there was one key theme: They imagined that the plan succeeded because everything was communicated clearly and in an efficient manner.
It also helped that Pete’s migration team, the division managers, and senior management were responsive and quick to reply to inquiries. Because of this, doubts and concerns were easily assuaged and problems were easily identified.
Step 8: Revise the overall plan based on this strategic exercise
The leader revises the project or process based on the feedback, and, if needed, repeats the exercise.
Pete got in touch with me two weeks after his project was completed to tell me some good news: his teams successfully executed the plan and all 400 employees were, by then, working efficiently from the comforts of their own homes.
While there were some bumps along the road during the first week, his team’s responsiveness and the support from the other division managers helped pave the way to a smoother transition from the second through fourth weeks.
To prevent work-from-home disasters in this time of transitioning to manage the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, make sure to use the “Failure-Proofing” technique prior to implementing decisions of any significance, as well as to assess the management of substantial projects and processes.
To see case studies with in-depth guidelines of how you can apply this strategy as an individual or a team, see the Manual on Failure-Proofing.
To prevent disasters To prevent disasters in transitioning to working from home, imagine that your transition completely failed. Then, brainstorm all plausible reasons for failure, and generate solutions to these potential problems. Do the same to maximize success.
Questions to Consider (please share your thoughts in the comments section)
- What questions do you have about applying this technique when shifting your organization to a telecommute setup?
- Where do you think Failure-Proofing might best fit into your organization’s work-from-home process?
- What will be your next steps in most effectively bringing it to your team and integrating it into your organization’s remote work processes?
Originally Published at Disaster Avoidance Experts
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is on a mission to protect leaders from dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases by developing the most effective decision-making strategies.
A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide (Intentional Insights, 2017), and The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020). He has over 550 articles and 450 interviews in Fast Company, CBS News, Time, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Inc. Magazine, and elsewhere.
His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training as the CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, and over 15 years in academia as a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist. Contact him at Gleb@DisasterAvoidanceExperts.com, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, LinkedIn, and register for his free Wise Decision Maker Course.