After weeks of assessment, analysis, and discussion, your design team has arrived at a comprehensive solution that will create an organization with the right structure, roles, governance, process, and metrics to deliver on the business strategy. As the sponsor or project manager, you ask, “what could go wrong”?  The team is silent. After all, they have followed the process, acted on the data, and tested several scenarios against the design criteria.  It appears we are ready to implement. Or are we?

The problem with a typical pre-launch critiquing session is that everyone is invested in the consensus solution. It’s hard to then take apart one’s own or one another’s work, and it may not seem safe to raise dissent if the team is ready to move on.

Pre-mortem analysis offers a safe and effective way to test a design solution. Instead of asking what might go wrong, have the team imagine that it is the future and things did go wrong. Based on the concept of prospective hindsight, it frees team members to be creative and candid in assuming the design has failed. The technique comes from the world of project management, and was described by Gary Klein in the September 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Here’s how apply it to organization design. Once the team has finalized its design solution, a brain-writing session is held in which everyone imagines that it is one year into the future and the design has failed to work as intended. Each member then writes down three reasons for the failure. The answers are collected and the facilitator tabulates all the reasons on a chart or whiteboard. The team then leaves the future and comes back into the present to discuss how to prevent the future failure from happening. This candid discussion leads to a closer and more realistic look at the design solution, leading to important corrections or adjustments to the design and implementation plan.

As both an internal and external consultant, I have used premortem analysis a number of times with positive results.  In one case, a leadership team from a large corporate investments department in a market-leading financial services company had spent months creating an elegant global organizational model of matrixed partnerships, deployable centers of expertise, and scaled service centers.  The design fulfilled its criteria, had sponsor and stakeholder support, and by all appearances was ready to deploy.  All the flaws had been squeezed out.  But we paused and conducted a half-day premortem analysis.  Much to their surprise, the team identified 16 reasons the design had failed in the future, many of which had to do with unaligned trading systems, disconnected processes, and poor downstream stakeholder engagement. As a result of these insights the design was tweaked, the deployment plan reworked, and a year later the organization was operating successfully, as intended.

Pre-mortem analysis offers a way for an organization design team to safely and objectively examine its own work—before anything goes wrong. By predicting failure, it helps prevent side effects and unintended consequences, and helps ensure success.

Tom Jasinski

Senior Consultant