Failure is your friend – how to run a pre-mortem

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On the way back from a long drive the other week, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast on failure.

It’s about how the engineers in the challenger shuttle disaster actually predicted the failed o-ring, and objected to the shuttle’s launch but were overruled.  It looks in to the culture of failure and how the stigmas involved meant that failure was frowned upon and people weren’t happy to speak out.

That’s the first bit.

The second bit, is what I really want to focus on.  It’s the idea of a pre-mortem, where you embrace the idea that the project (or business in our case) will fail, and before you start, you ask the question “what could I have done about it” with all the team members involved.  The idea is that you imagine yourself in the future after the project completely died.  Like total disaster, you won’t even talk to the people involved — that bad.  So the process asks you to do a speed thinking exercise where in 2 minutes (only 2 minutes) you write down everything that went wrong to cause this incredible failure.  Then as a group you share these things.

Now you imagine you could travel back in time to your present self – what would you tell them, as a group, to do or not do which could avoid these disasters.

Apart from the obvious, where this encourages people to think about how things could go wrong, the exercise liberates team members from the fear of failure by establishing early that it’s OK to talk about it.

Another model I was thinking of is we can write two press releases at the start of the project, with the idea we release one 12 months in to the future.  One is “everything went well” and the other is “everything turned to shit”.

We’re going to give these a go at BlueChilli as a healthy exercise with all our founders.