Pre-mortems, a.k.a. prospective hindsight, is not as popular a management tool as the much more used post-mortems. Communications managers would be amiss, however, to not use pre-mortems in order to anticipate and prevent failure.
Post-mortems are a popular management tool to evaluate any communications campaign or initiative. What was the outcome of our activities? Were our strategic and tactical choices the right ones, or at least good enough? What do we need to learn from this experience in order do better next time? These are just some of the questions that post-mortem assessments will provide answers to.
A practice that is less well known but merits as much credit as post-mortems is the pre-mortem. One can think of the pre-mortem, a.k.a. prospective hindsight, as a thought experiment where you put yourself in the future and imagine that a project has gone terribly wrong. This can be a product PR campaign that yielded terrible results, for example, or it can be a company that completely missed the mark with its crisis communications (I will come back to that example later). You then craft the story of how things ended up going awry.
Less group-think, more creative thinking
Behavioral economist Richard H. Thaler discerns in his entry to Edge’s 2017 book What Scientific Term Or Concept Deserves To Be More Widely Known? two advantages to using pre-mortems. First, explicitly going through a pre-mortem can help organizations surmount the natural tendencies they have toward groupthink and overconfidence. The exercise is a useful cover for any devil’s advocate to speak up and question the current course of action. Groupthink is a bias, and biased thinking not only affects crisis communications, but is rife in all communications (and any management) decision-making.
Secondly, Thaler says, starting the exercise assuming the project has failed creates an illusion of certainty. Research shows that inquiring why something failed rather than why it might fail triggers creative thinking and facilitates the process whereby people will think broadly about all possible scenarios that might have led to a disastrous outcome.
In their HBR-article Outsmart Your Own Biases Jack B. Soll, Katherine L. Milkman and John W. Payne mention Home Depot’s short-lived expansion into China as an example of a decision that could have benefited from a pre-mortem. Home Depot was forced to end operations in China because it learned too late that China is not a do-it-yourself market. Middle-class Chinese consumers do not improve their homes themselves, Home Depot discovered, but gladly pay contractors since the labor is very cheap in their country.
A thought experiment prior to making the decision to enter the Chinese market depicting the imagined failure of the market entry would probably have helped prevent the faux pas of entering China in the first place.
Pre-mortems in crisis communications
I have already covered in great length biased decision making in crisis communications. By way of example, I am allowing room here to illustrate the potential benefits of pre-mortems to crisis communications, without wanting to suggest that other corporate communications or public relations initiatives stand to profit less from pre-mortems.
Let’s say you are part of the communications team of a chemical plant and have invested already considerably in crisis preparedness in the last few years. You have a crisis communications plan in place. You have conducted first a desktop simulation and then a full-blown real-time simulation exercise. And yet… you are feeling less than secure about your readiness. You decide to get the team together and imagine a future incident where the plant caused bad press. You set out to think about what could have gone wrong.
The exchange that follows might have people bring up issues that were hitherto overlooked. Someone might raise a concern about validation processes for all outbound communication being too complex and burdensome. Your press releases would have gone out all right, but everything would have taken far too long, and the media would relentlessly criticize you for running behind in your communication. Somebody else might notice that there is no service-level agreement with a specialized consultancy firm in place. Senior communications managers who are skilled communicators but have little experience managing crises would have stumbled delivering the messages because they would not have been coached sufficiently in speaking on the spot.
The two mentioned fictional points for improvement are just two examples of insights that can emerge during a pre-mortem. When they are remedied in time, these improvements will significantly bolster the organization’s crisis communication readiness and will make any future post-mortem evaluation of a crisis look better than it ever would have without the necessary intervention.
Did you enjoy this piece on improving communication decisions through pre-mortems?
You might also like my piece on how two heuristic biases will derail crisis communicators.