Saturday 19 November 2016

The school research lead, premortems and avoiding the avoidable

As we approach the end of the autumn term, plans are no doubt being developed for new initiatives or innovations which are going to be introduced in the New Year.  Unfortunately, the introduction of an initiative, policy or change within a school often results in failure, maybe in part due to individuals not be willing to speak-up about potential problems with the change or intervention, particularly if its is viewed as a headteacher's 'pet-project.'   So to help with this problem, I'm going to use the work of Klein (2007a) who developed a technique called a premortem, and which happens to be one of Daniel Kahneman's favourite approaches to try and increase the quality of decisions within organisations.

What is premortem?

As Klein states : A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient's death.  Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient.  A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so the project can be improved rather than autopsied.  Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the 'patient' has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members' task is to generate plausible reasons for the project's failure. (p1)

In the context of a school or MAT a project premortem comes at the beginning of a new initiative - say a new timetabling system or uniform policy - and works out why the new initiative has not delivered the desired for results and has created a number of negative unintended consequences.  In other words, you have imagined the initiative has failed, and is to the withdrawn.

Why do we need pre-mortems?

Kahneman (2011) argues that in decision-making there is a pervasive optimistic bias, and which is reflected in the following tendencies:
  • perceiving circumstances as more benign than they really are;
  • overstating our own attributes and associated skill levels;
  • setting objectives believing they are more achievable than they are like to be;
  • overconfidence in our ability to predict the future and how events will unfold;
with all these tendencies contributing to an overconfidence in the wisdom of a particular course of action.

Kahneman goes onto argue that as a senior leadership team or project group get closer to making a decision, the expression of doubts about the wisdom of proposed course of action get suppressed.  This is particularly the case, if say the CEO, headteacher or head of department - have already indicated their preference for a particular plan.  As a consequence competing views and opinions are often seen as a lack of commitment to the group.   As such, Kahneman identifies two main benefits of conducting premortems;  first, it legitimises dissent and rewards people for being imaginative and creative; second,  even proponents of the planned course of action are encouraged to look for weaknesses and threats, which not have been so obvious in earlier group deliberations.

How to conduct a premortem?

Klein (2007b) usefully provides an outline process for conducting a premortem, and which I have adapted for use in educational setting  Prior to the final decision to proceed with a project or policy,  a group of people who are knowledgeable about the project - including both the project leader and sponsor - get together for a meeting lasting approximately 45 - 60  minutes

Step 1 : Preparation: Team members take out sheets of paper and get relaxed in their chairs.  They should already be familiar with the plan, or else have the plan described to them so they can understand what is supposed to be happening.

Step 2: Imagine a fiasco.  When I conduct the Premortem, I say I am looking into a crystal ball and, oh no, I am seeing the project has failed.  It isn't a simple failure either.  It is total, embarrassing, devastating failure.  The people on the team are no longer talking to one another.  Our company is not talking to the sponsors.  Things have gone as wrong as they could.  However, we could only afford an inexpensive model of the crystal ball so we cannot make out the reasons for the failures.  Then I ask, "What could have caused this?"

Step 3 : Generate reasons for the failure.  The people on the team spend the next three minutes writing down all the reasons why they believe the failure occurred....

Step 4: Consolidate the lists.  When each member of the group is done writing, the facilitiator goes around the room, asking each person to state one item from his or her list.  Each item is recorded on a whiteboard.  The process continues until every member of the group has revealed every item on their list.  By the end of this step, you should have a comprehensive list of the group's concerns with the plan at hand

Step 5 : Revisit the plan :  The can address two or three items of greatest concern, and then schedule another meeting to discuss the ideas for avoiding or minimising the other problems.

Step 6 : Periodically review the list.  Some project leaders take out the list every three or four months to keep the specter of failure fresh, and to resensitize the team to problems that may just be emerging (Klein, 2007b p 99-100)

What are the implications for evidence-based practitioners and school leaders?

Pre-mortems are an essential tool for the evidence-based practitioner.  Evidence-based practice involves making conscientious, explicit and judicious use of multiple sources of evidences to bring about favourable outcomes  A premortem aids conscientiousness by opening up the decision-making process to both scrutiny and provide access to a range of stakeholder views, and in doing so increase the evidence-base.  Second, pre-mortems aid in making thinking explicit, and the reasons identified for a project's 'failure' will lead to under-pinning data and assumptions to be challenged.  It's a process which has the potential to flush out cognitive biases.   Finally, it's likely to reduce the number of ineffective  decisions - which do not  provide the benefits intended - and increases the chances resources, time and expertise being used to contribute to favorable outcomes


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan

Klein, G. (2007a). Performing a project premortem. Harvard Business Review, 85(9), 18-19.

Klein, G. (2007b). The power of intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work. Crown Business.


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  2. Thanks, a thought-provoking post. You might like to consider this post too Premortem