Imagine failing a turnaround before it’s even begun

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Imagine failing a turnaround before it’s even begun

Yes, it does sound crazy, doesn’t it? Yet that is exactly what scientist/writer Gary Klein recommends. I think it’s worth a try. Read on and then tell me what you think.

We all know what a postmortem examination is. In a criminal investigation, an autopsy is performed because the victim’s body will most likely hold clues to the cause of death or who did it. Postmortem exams on family members can also help us better understand some diseases and genetic tendencies and provide insights for possible cures for future generations.

On projects like turnarounds, we have postmortem exams, too. Accounting is a postmortem event. It tells us whether or not we came in on budget or how much we went over budget. We are supposed to learn from our mistakes and take the lessons forward, which works well in theory but is not done often enough in the real world. It should be done after each project so that we can take our lessons learned forward. It’s also important to make a habit of post-project evaluation and for supervisors and managers to share information. This helps to avoid making the same mistakes twice.

But what Klein is suggesting is that those who are about to be involved in a big project should imagine it has already occurred. He calls the method a premortem (as opposed to a postmortem) exam. His theory is that having participants ask “what might go wrong” before the project begins, rather than “what went wrong” after the project is completed, will provide helpful insights, strategies and better management opportunities.

Poppycock or ‘right on’?

Right about now, you may be saying, “Whitney, that’s just more psycho-babble,” or “Whitney, that’s just poppycock and you know it.” No, I think this method may have merit, and some research concurs. According to the Harvard Business Review, a study conducted in 1989 by three researchers found that “prospective hindsight — imagining an event that has already occurred — increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent.”

Think about it: Many athletes use visualization techniques to train. When an athlete’s mind recalls the desired outcome or skill repeatedly, a sort of “mental rehearsal” occurs, confidence improves and, when the match finally occurs, the athlete’s mind and body are both ready.

With so many athletes reporting how visualization has aided their performance, it was only natural businesses began to use visualization to help build higher-performing teams. Today, there are companies that facilitate this training. One such company is named Winning Mind and has the tagline “Performance Under Pressure.” This company provides performance-coaching services for the military, sports and business.

Klein’s twist of visualization is different, however. It is his suggestion that, instead of visualizing a smooth and ideal project, you visualize a project’s abject failure and learn from that. He says everyone on the team should “independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure — especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems for fear of being impolitic.” He cites several instances where his method was tried and helped prevent colossal failures.

A different kind of risk analysis

You already do risk analysis prior to a turnaround, but Klein says his premortem approach offers benefits that other methods don’t. He says his method doesn’t just help teams identify potential problems early on, but also reduces the kind of “damn the torpedoes” attitude often assumed by people who are overinvested in a project. He also concludes that, by describing weaknesses no one else has mentioned, team members feel more valued.

Klein’s method may not be something you want to use, but it is my belief those of us involved in pressure-cooker projects that are as important and costly as turnarounds should always be looking for new ways to build better teams and improve our performance, so we never have to look back on a failed project.

For more information, contact Whitney Strickland at (281) 506-7152 or

Also published in BIC magazine.

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