Too many projects fail but most of these can be avoided by a simply using a pre-mortem adopting the NLP concept of future pacing.
‘The future belongs to those who prepare for it today’ Malcolm X
As a ‘Gateway Reviewer’ for high risk projects, as well as spending a lot of time on intervention and turn-around, I see more than my fair share of project failure. Often I am surprised that the high failure rates universally reported are not even higher. The sad thing is that almost always the reasons for failure are knowable and avoidable.
‘Projects don’t fail for novel reasons, but the same boringly repetitive ones’ Sir Peter Gershon
This means that when projects do fail, sacrificial lambs are easy to find. And when your project has failed you will probably do a post-mortem and find out what went wrong anyway, so why not do it up front instead and either save your money by not starting or manage out the risks that might knock your train off the rails?
‘We know why projects fail, we know how to prevent failure; so why do projects still fail?’ Cobb’s paradox
But how can we do the lessons learned before we start the project? In the NLP world we often use a technique called ‘future pacing’ to get our clients to imagine themselves in the future, both to mentally rehearse going through the steps to get there and also to look backwards to help the imagination to create insights about what must be done to get them there. Imagining we are in the future beyond the problem helps to set our thinking free and unleash our imagination.
How to facilitate a premortem using future pacing
Set time aside. You can do it quite quickly but half a day to avoid failure is a good investment.
Think of a venue, ideally away from the work environment as you want people to speak freely and be unconstrained.
Pick the people. Between 6-12 is a good number for me to get enough ideas going without losing contributions from the quieter ones in the group. You want a range of perspectives and thinking styles in the room, and now would be a good time to get your client/end user in the room. Now is also the time to get your critics and ‘black hats’ in the room. Maybe you should even consider inviting Casandra.
If you don’t have a good facilitator then bring one in – the project and peoples’ time are valuable so don’t waste them.
Tell people why they are here, to help the project to succeed, and success is thinking about as many ways as we can of why the project might fail. Or rather, to work out, from a future perspective, why the project did fail.
Set the stage – people are most creative when they are having fun, so why not get into the spirit and play act a little. (Perhaps a ‘who dunnit’ murder mystery or even a ‘wake’).
I make use of ‘spatial anchors’ to separate out the present and the future in different locations on the floor. In the future spot it is useful to have a flipchart to record ideas, whereas when we come back to the present we will have another flipchart to make action plans in the present.
Initially I use some Milton language and confuse timelines to improve chances of side-lining peoples’ conscious minds and assisting creative thinking. Something like, ‘Are you curious as to why, in the future, we will look back to when the project was to be implemented, and think about what we could be doing now, and wonder what people will say about why the project failed. And do those things, now, that will help future success (no question mark, ie no inflection in voice).’
Then I play act a short story to get us from now to a safe distance in the future. ‘We are here today (standing on spatial anchor for the present), to have some fun, by imagining (while walking across towards spatial anchor for the future), that we have miraculously been transported to the future, at the company’s expense, to look back on our project. And moving forward (while walking), through specification, design, build, test and roll-out. But the project failed (pause). Continuing forward, five years beyond that, when we have moved on to other successful projects, and maybe met up again like this (now on the future anchor), and look back at today (looking across at present anchor), what are the things, with the benefit of hindsight, that might have been the cause of failure. Shall we see if we can work it out between us?’
Pick someone out to start who you suspect knows a possible cause or wants to say something to get things started. We are in brainstorm mode, so do not allow filtering or critique of people’s contributions. Use your facilitator’s skills to draw out reasons from everyone, especially those who might be reserved.
Close out with, ‘So, is our reason for failure in that list, or are we still missing something? And if we were missing something, what might it be?’
Now we return to the present. ‘So, coming back to today, here in this room, now (while walking to the anchor spot for the present). Looking at that list, given to us with the benefit of hindsight. Is that a good list, does is contain that gold nugget that will save our project?’ Take confirmation or recycle back to future anchor and extract additional learnings.
Now we will deal with each of the un-filtered ideas on the flip chart and filter them for likely probability and impact, as we would do in a traditional risk workshop.
From the refined list, we can then task pairs or groups to work up mitigation plans for remaining items.
Close out by thanking everyone for their input and creativity and pledge to work up the outputs to improve the risk register.
If you have found the thing that everyone knew but no one wanted to talk about, the elephant in the room, or some other nugget, then you will have saved everyone from a lot of wasted effort and maybe saved your project. Wasn’t that much better than waiting a while to present at the project autopsy?
If there was nothing new then you have done a fantastic job at project assurance, done an excellent job at stakeholder engagement with your client, and carried out a first class team building event –well done.
The process of ‘future pacing’ helps us to gain emotional distance to speak freely. If you are new to this game it may sound fanciful, but the results are well researched by Nobel winning behavioural psychologist Daniel Khaneman. If you are not yet brave enough to try it out you can start with a tame version from the Harvard Business Review based on research at the University of Colorado in the late 80s.
‘The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination’ Albert Einstein
When working in the automotive industry we carried out an engineering technique with some similarities called Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) where you imagine, or as an engineer might prefer, use inductive reasoning, what symptoms a failed component might display once built and in operation and then work backwards to identify candidates for the root cause. From there you go into re-design and also work out tests to identify and eliminate root causes should symptoms manifest in operation.
A fellow author related to me a second hand story, but a good one none the less, about a similar kind of workshop for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic project. I have to admire a man for whom the epithet, ‘The sky is the limit’ is not empowering but seen as someone else’s limiting belief, but for him an opportunity for a new line of business. ‘What could go wrong’.
Well, his team did not find it difficult to come up with a few potential showstoppers: they didn’t have a space plane, if they built one it might blow up, they might not get a licence to fly a commercial plane in space, they didn’t have a space port, no customers, no money… ‘Enough’, he cried, counting the risks and issues and the number of people around the table. ‘Right, you sort the funding out, you get me a space port, you build me a space plane, you make sure it doesn’t blow up, you get it licenced…Well that was easy.’ I saw their programme manager present at APM’s annual conference in 2011; they had funding, customers, a futuristic spaceport in New Mexico, a space plane which hasn’t blown up. (OK, so the project is really behind and the customers haven’t flown yet, but they still seem happy, as their imagination bought into a story).