On Sunday 24, 2020, the front page of the New York Times looked like never before. It featured 1,000 names on a list marking the terrible and unbelievable milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the US. Only three months ago, who would have imagined?
In early March 2020, when the coronavirus outbreak was just beginning to really scare people, and conjectures were flying all over the media about the alarming number of people who were going to die from the virus, I truly hoped that leaders around the world were familiar with the practice of pre-mortem. Perhaps not the most common exercise global leaders are used to conducting, as they are more familiar with post-mortem processes, debriefing and investigating.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you are the prime minister of a medium-sized country. COVID-19 is quickly spreading across your population. From the information you have at hand, the number of people who will die can range from 0.02% (like the flu) to 10% (like the SARS virus). How should you prepare for the next coming months? If this is just a flu virus, then a widespread country-wide lockdown will cause horrible, unnecessary economic consequences which you will have to deal with for years to come. If it is closer to the SARS virus in terms of mortality, then very quickly your medical system will collapse under the volume of patients needing intensive care. What should you do? Get your experts and team together and conduct a pre-mortem exercise — in this specific case, remotely, of course.
Excellent yet underutilized practice
Pre-mortem is an excellent, yet underutilized, planning tool for important tasks and projects, new processes, new products, and more. After a challenge has been set, pre-mortems can uncover overlooked conditions for success and possible risk factors. Typically, the result of such a pre-mortem exercise is a list of what needs to be set up in advance, and/or mitigated, in order to increase the odds of success. These exercises are extremely important and efficient, especially when the stakes are high. So why are they not more common?
One personality trait shared by almost every successful leader, and definitely by every entrepreneur, is optimism. Optimists see opportunities, even when there is a downturn. Optimists put in the effort because they are confident they can reach high goals. No one can motivate team members if they lack confidence, or if all they see are worst-case scenarios with no chances of overcoming them. No one has ever founded a company believing they are going to fail. An optimistic view on life helps us adapt to change and gain the confidence to take acceptable risks in order to reach success, whatever the goal ahead of us may be.
However, optimism can be a double-edged sword. Indeed, optimism is a powerful tool that inspires and motivates, but it also prevents people from seeing difficulties, as optimism can make business leaders feel like they can handle anything. As a result, multiple red lights must be triggered for them to understand there is a problem — oftentimes when the solution is costly. Hence, there is a balancing act that leaders need to pull off: too optimistic and you are blind and reckless; without enough optimism, you are cautious, risk-averse and demotivating.
Doom and gloom, we need you
What sometimes happens when a leader presents a plan to his or her team is that no one wants to be the party-pooper to point out the holes in logic — and the risks. In fact, if the leader is perceived as successful, well-respected and knowledgeable, the team trusts that the plan is sound. They might not even look for weaknesses. Pre-mortems are a way of overcoming team dynamics in which its members are overconfident or overly trusting, or in which the organizational culture doesn’t allow for difficult discussions.
How to run a pre-mortem discussion is documented in several resources, including in Scaling up Excellence, by Huggy Rao and Bob Sutton. The idea is relatively simple. Once you have a clear plan which everyone is familiar with, you divide your team into two groups. You choose a date in the future, after which the milestone has been achieved. The first group imagines what success looks like. The ‘success team’ brainstorms all the things that went really well. The goal of their list is to come up with additional opportunities. The ‘doom and gloom team’ does the exact opposite. This team imagines the task went horribly wrong and failed at every opportunity. They create a list of all the catastrophes. Following the brainstorm session and to facilitate the discussion, each team summarizes the main themes and ideas. Then, the entire team reconvenes to learn from the lists and to decide which risks/opportunities are worth pursuing.
If we go back to the COVID-19 pandemic, in some countries, it seems like the leaders gave more weight to the ‘doom and gloom team:’ they imagined how millions are dying, a worldwide lack of ventilators, and first responders getting sick, for example. In Israel, the concern with ventilators encouraged the immediate launch of various projects, such as engineering a device that could be used instead of a ventilator, based on a breathing aid intended for sleep apnea. This creative solution, as other disruptive ones, was created by Unit 81, IDF’s top-secret Technological Intelligence Unit, which was in the shadows until now.
A culture of learning
Don’t get me wrong. Optimism is essential to leadership and a wonderful trait to have. We all prefer to work with and follow optimists — they’re much more engaging. And, leaders must be optimists; otherwise, they won’t be able to dream big, set stretch goals, motivate or succeed in achieving great results. With that being said, leaders also need the ability to discuss mistakes, failures, weaknesses and difficulties — past, present and future. These are opportunities to learn, mitigate risks and develop best practices. Solutions to problems will most probably come from the experts and the team, but only if the problems have been recognized and if the culture permits these types of discussions.
Post-mortems and debriefing, both in the military and in politics, are relatively common processes. If only our leaders had more courage to conduct pre-mortems on a regular basis.