Have You Ever Contemplated Your Own Demise?

Guest post from Nick Liddell:
Imagine that three years from now your career will be in
tatters. You will have no job and your prospects of future employment will seem
bleak. Your carefully manicured career path simply won’t materialize.

Now ask yourself: What are the most likely reasons for
things going wrong?
And now ask yourself: What could you start doing today to
prevent those reasons from happening?
Whether it’s a career plan or an organizational strategy,
we tend to feel far more comfortable developing positive, purpose- or
mission-driven strategy. It’s what some people call ‘backcasting’: setting a
vision and then working back from it to identify the steps you’ll need to take
in order to achieve it. It’s our go-to approach to strategy development because
it helps us to break down long-term growth planning into practical, incremental
activity. During implementation, progress can be measured against the plan and
corrective action taken. Backcasting is positive. It’s practical. It’s logical.
But in the real world, it’s far from a guarantee of success.
Failure is commonplace.
Which is why in 2007 research psychologist Gary Klein
pioneered the idea of a pre-mortem: imagining that a project has failed and
using the thought experiment to identify flaws in your plans. Pre-mortems
function the opposite way to backcasting; rather than thinking positively about
how to achieve a desired outcome, teams are tasked with identifying potential
sources of failure and finding ways to mitigate those sources to make the
strategy more resilient. In many respects, pre-mortems are the perfect
complement to vision-led strategy planning.
There’s also a cultural upside to embedding pre-mortems
into your (or your team’s) approach to planning: a 2017 study by researchers at
Harvard and the University of North Carolina found that people tend to avoid
precisely the type of feedback that pre-mortems are designed to elicit. One of
the biggest issues with vision-led strategy development is that it encourages
us to seek out confirmatory feedback; the moment we establish and communicate a
plan, we create a strong incentive to search for evidence that it’s a good plan
and that it’s working. Conversely, we tend to avoid disconfirmatory feedback
because it fails to confirm our own view of how good a job we’re doing.
Pre-mortems have a cultural benefit because they create a safe space for
disconfirmatory feedback.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Like many things in life, strategy is rarely perfect the
first time round. And even the most carefully conceived plans can go awry. As
Mike Tyson famously observed, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in
the mouth.’ Whether your plans are personal or organizational, they must
eventually confront reality – and reality always wins. Contemplating the worst
that could happen to your plans won’t turn you into one of life’s great cynics
or pessimists. It will demonstrate to the people you work with that you’re
realistic about your human fallibility, that you’re open-minded about outcomes
and that you value alternative points of view – particularly when they differ
from your own. Introducing pre-mortem thinking won’t just make your strategies
and plans more resilient: it will make you more resilient, too.

Nick Liddell is co-author, with Richard Buchanan, of Wild
Thinking: 25 Unconventional Idea to Grow Your Brand and Your Business
He is Director of Consulting at The Clearing, helping global brands grow and
make a difference. For more information, please visit: https://www.koganpage.com/product/wild-thinking-9780749484507