The Fallacy of the Pre-Mortem in Preventing Failure – A Distinction on Avoiding vs. Managing Failures

I will admit that I definitely have earned the moniker of “The Failure Guy” with my incessant ramblings on the topic of failure: our fear of it, the importance of learning from it, and the necessity of preparing for it.  So I wasn’t surprised when a friend had forwarded me a LinkedIn post titled “The PreMortem: Preventing Failure Before You Fail.”  To be honest I had read the article and thought that it sounded quite ridiculous; the idea that we could simply avoid failure by just preparing more for it seemed tragically flawed.  How much preparation would be required to completely prevent failure on a project of any reasonable complexity?

To be fair, I think everyone in business can benefit by drawing a more clear distinction between projects where failure should be avoided (e.g. IT systems implementation) and where failure should be managed (e.g. new business development).  Too often we blur the lines and create significant confusion.  I agree with the author that more preparation could maybe reduce our chances of failure, but I disagree that it will prevent failure.  I know this may be a matter of semantics but here I really believe that the language matters.  To prevent something is to stop that something from happening.

In the article the author describes how we should take some of the energy that we apply to a “project” postmortem and apply it to a pre-mortem where we examine what might go wrong with a project once we have decided which path to follow.  For a project of limited risk and complexity, the suggestion to be more mindful in our planning makes perfect sense.  The old adage “measure twice, cut once” comes to mind and for general carpentry the idea of a little more preparation prior to action fits perfectly.  In this scenario there are a limited number of variables involved and the action is irrevocable.

But what about work like new business development or innovation development where the future state is unknown?  To predict when you would find failure would require a crystal ball to see into the future.  While I first read the post I was a bit annoyed by the hypothesis but I didn’t want to be the antagonist and decided to refrain from commenting.  The more I thought about this idea the more dangerous I thought the language was.  It confuses the fact that sometimes failure is the result that we need to achieve.  Mistakes should be prevented but failures in this work are the outcomes of reaching into the unknown of the future while understanding the possible risks and proceeding anyway.

In this high risk work where organizations are placing bets on the future, more preparation can help avoid mistakes but there is no such thing as a pre-mortem that can prevent failure.  In these scenarios where we tolerate failure as part of the process, what happens when things don’t turn out as planned?  I’ll suggest that instead of talking about pre-mortems maybe we should instead consider talking about “failure prenuptials” that focus on what happens when failure occurs.

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