Thinking outside the coffin. A Halloween story

Tombs of failed plans

The ghosts of failed plans swirl about your head; the groans of past failures fill your ears; feelings of loss and wasted opportunities consume you.” Do you remember”, they wail, ”that idea for a new product – you forgot the market was changing and it cost you thousands?” Yes, you remember, all too well, every pain and cost.

It’s helpful not to repeat the past and to learn from mistakes. It’s not helpful to be hamstrung by a sense of past failure so that you can’t move forward. New opportunities don’t exactly mirror the past either, so your learnings are limited, and that’s not helpful too.

Planning limitations

One of the problems we have got in planning something new is that we cannot scope out every possible eventuality – there are some unknown unknowns. We can do whatever we can to limit that, but in the certain knowledge we may have to perform a post-mortem after the plan has died and after it has cost us time and effort. And new projects fail at a spectacular rate. Projects are imbued with enthusiasm, or they will never get off the ground. But enthusiasm can be misplaced, and people may not speak up when they have reservations because they don’t want to rattle the ghostly chains of past failures and be seen to be naysayers.

Premortems

Why wait for death? Why not do the autopsy before you start? It’s called the premortem. The idea isn’t new, but it’s not commonly adopted. It’s a simple concept. The plan is scoped out, everybody is briefed.

Next, you become the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and tell everybody that the plan has failed. Spectacularly. It’s cost a fortune. See the tombstone, feel the clammy mist.

Then everybody writes down what they think has gone wrong, not limiting themselves to the bases and assumptions built into the planning. Get creative – think outside the “coffin”. Then decide whether the planning can be changed to deal with these possibilities.

Benefits

The obvious benefit is that you think of more things that can go wrong and counter them. But there is another, subtler one. It’s touched upon above – enthusiasm. It’s a wonderful attribute. The downside is that things get ignored or brushed under the carpet when they really do need attention. You can’t allow enthusiasm to override that still, small voice of caution completely.

Lastly, your sensitivities are heightened so that when the project starts you are more aware of issues earlier. Premortems are not as painful as post-mortems. Part of the work we do with clients is to introduce more ”what if” questions into their planning. We’ve seen a lot of ghosts! So you see fewer.

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