The Pre-mortem

Watch enough police dramas or true crime shows and you’ll soon grow accustomed to the grisly aspects of a post-mortem examination.

But have you ever seen footage of a pre-mortem analysis? Probably not since few businesses work this into their preparations. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve slicing up body parts.

The fact is such an exercise can mean the difference between success and failure for your communications and public affairs initiatives.

The pre-mortem technique is distinct from assessing feedback after the fact with an after action review. That communications “post-mortem” is vital, yet it’s important to understand the difference between the two techniques.

The pre-mortem assumes failure. It is as if you have been transported to a certain period in the future, typically six to twelve months. What you see is an unmitigated disaster. Note that you are not asking “what if” this happened; you are making a hard assumption that things went off the rails (for a deeper look, see an article in Psychology Today by Gary Klein who claims to have invented the exercise).

The pre-mortem works to anticipate the best ways to react to both expected and unexpected twists and turns. It can be applied to such issues as media campaigns, advocacy drives, and crises. Basically, you are peering into the future, then taking a look in the rearview mirror to see what went wrong.

How can you leverage a pre-mortem drill to your benefit? Let’s take a look at the five Ws for some answers.

Who should participate?

  • Your chief communications officer and anyone else in that department who works on the front lines of the issue
  • Senior government relations staffers in the event the issue concerns an advocacy topic
  • The CEO
  • C-suite executives with responsibility for the issue
  • Staff members who will implement the program
  • Your communications strategy and training consultant
  • With few exceptions, no one else — hangers-on not invited

What should you do?

  • Review the basics of the plan concisely to set everyone on the same baseline
  • Throw in an “oops” wrinkle indicating that your plan has failed, but not explaining why
  • Ask everyone to write down their ideas for how things might go wrong
  • Poll everyone for their top one or two reasons why they think failure occurred
  • Game out how those barriers might be overcome
  • Update your plan accordingly

Future signWhen should you meet?

  • As your plan is nearing final draft stage
  • Never consider your plan finalized until you have completed the pre-mortem
  • Research finds that most people are sharper in the morning, so aim for that day part (with the caveat that you should assess whether participants have atypical circadian clocks)

Where should this take place?

  • It’s best if the meeting transpires in person if possible (allowing for sensible health and safety precautions, of course) as opposed to remote
  • Holding it off site can be helpful as it tends to give everyone involved a fresh perspective
  • Avoid scheduling it on the immediate turf of one of the participants (for instance, to avoid intimidation if held in the CEO’s suite)

Why should you hold a pre-mortem?

  • It reveals potential weaknesses in your plan, allowing you to address them before crisis strikes
  • It tends to get everyone on the same page, or at least gives them a better understanding of conceivable pitfalls
  • It brings those responsible for implementing it closer together, leading to improved communication as your plan unfolds in the real world
  • Bottom line: It raises the odds for success of your company’s prime projects

Try out the pre-mortem approach. You might want to test it first on a lower level priority. That will allow you to iron out any kinks in your process before turning to your A-list issues.

For a more comprehensive dive into your communications strategy, check out A+ Strategies for C-Suite Communications: Turning Today’s Leaders into Tomorrow’s Influencers. Available wherever you prefer to buy books.
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