Practical Pessimism : "The Premortem"

By Jarrett Retz -January 23rd, 2019

I first tried to direct attention to this topic in one of my Book Notes posts. In the last month I have been cycling back through most of my book notes, trying to remind myself of the useful information, and have come across some forgotten gems.

One of the concepts that had slipped away from my mind was brought forth at the end of the chapter "The Engine of Capitalism", in Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The concept that I am talking about is called "The Premortem".

In the book, Kahneman brings up many examples of how people miscalculate probabilities that eventually end up having a negative outcome on their lives. 'The Premortem' is an exercise that encourages doubts, and areas of weaknesses, to rise to the surface, instead of being suppressed by overoptimism.

To be clear, the concept is borrowed from Gary Klein (as stated in the book on page 264), and is posed as follows:

Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of the disaster.

Gary Klein, quoted in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman goes on to say to that when a leader (boss) proposes a certain direction—or action plan—it can be seen as un-loyal to scrutinize the proposal. When the small doubts are dismissed (with the brainstorming phase a thing of the past) Kahneman says, "The suppression of doubt contributes to overconfidence in a group where only supporters of the decision have a voice."

Abstracting this concept a little further we can imagine what this suppression may look like, or what is sounds like; silence. People that fail to voice their concerns—I imagine—do so because of a risk of insulting the other person, making them feel uncomfortable, or showing too much fear.

There's a few paths that can be followed next. If you have enough intelligence to be skeptical of a plan, then you should voice those concerns. If you think that's difficult to do, for any number or reasons, voice your concerns for there not being a system to bring these concerns to light (i.e premortem). If you do not voice your concerns, and you do put forth a change in the process that decisions and plans are made, then your team fails. Maybe that's not a frightening enough concept, or maybe the concept of a plan doomed to fail just isn't scary enough in the present moment.

Ok, new example, let's assume we're talking about your life instead of a organization. Oh, how the tides turn. Maybe you can watch a small plan fail, that has little impact on your life, in the scope of your organization It should be much more difficult to sit back and watch a big decision in your life fail.

You might think that this is synonymous to using premeditated pessimism to promote action where you have a lot of anxiety. For example, you may want a raise at work, so you think, what happens if I get fired for doing this? I'm pretty hirable, and I could move back in with my parents to get back on my feet. The worse thing that can happen isn't that bad actually. Ok, I think I will ask for a raise. Oversimplified scenario—I know—but I hope it got the point across.

'The premortem", on the contrary, is a technique that acts as the brakes to slow the roll when you have a lot of optimism towards a plan. You may think, this is a great idea, and have a grand total of three reasons (which is enough for you) to go ahead with it. It may actually be something that has a good chance of succeeding! In either case, 'The Premortem' is a way that someone may train themselves to be a little better at double-checking their plans of action.

A phrase that I'm going to be using more is, ''process over product". This term earned a spot in my vernacular during my time watching the Learning How To Learn course on Coursera.org. In many ways, Thinking, Fast and Slow has that same theme. Make 'The Premortem' part of some process in decision making and the process is improved. If I had to choose a single take-a-way from Kahneman's book it would be: the outcome from the decision should not be judged as critically as the process that was used to make the decision.

If you're looking to know about 'The Premortem' from the source, check out the link to Gary Klein's work.

I hope this post was helpful, and that is propels some positive action in your life.


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