How a premortem can help you better prepare to return to the office

Laurie Ruettimann (she/her)

Author of "Betting on You"

Human resources leaders are at the heart of the next generation of economic development.

Don't believe me? Look around. Thriving businesses are putting employees at the center of everything. Successful restaurants are rethinking their talent attraction and recruiting strategies. Cutting-edge corporations are developing their best and brightest workers through holistic learning strategies. And all of this is possible because HR professionals like you know that reopening your organization means rethinking everything from the ground up.

COVID taught us that everything is on the table, from benefits to remote work scenarios. But unfortunately, it's easy to fall back into old patterns and habits as employers. Executive leadership teams are full of confident people who can easily make assumptions about workers and economic trends. Historically, they've been right about their organizations. However, the pandemic taught us that nobody is infallible.

That's why I'd like to teach you a technique called the premortem to help you avoid risk, make fewer mistakes and deliver right-first-time employee experiences in a post-COVID landscape.

What is a premortem?

In my new book, Betting On You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career, I share the story of the premortem that I learned from my mentor, Chris Ostoich. He's the co-founder and head of innovation at LISNR, which created a new way to transmit data using sound. Chris and his team have raised millions of dollars in venture capital and serve customers like Ticketmaster, Jaguar Land Rover, Visa and Lenovo.

One day, Chris and I were chatting about risk, failure and betting on ourselves. He mentioned the Space Shuttle Challenger flight. If you weren't alive, let me fill you in. In January 1986, seven astronauts died when the shuttle exploded right after liftoff. NASA retooled its entire approach to preflight communication after the accident. It turns out an engineer named Bob Ebeling predicted the space shuttle would explode. He tried to prevent it, but his bosses didn't listen. So for years, Bob blamed himself. It was only later in life that he could finally forgive himself for the mistakes of others at work.

Chris asked, "Have you ever heard of the premortem?"

I had not, and I'm guessing neither have you.

The premortem is a simple exercise. Before you do anything — paint your kitchen, create a hybrid work program, or implement new learning management software — pause and reflect. Think about how you can fail before you start. Then work backward to create solutions for this hypothetical failure and put those action points into your project plan.

If you can see the failure now, you can beat it. Develop a plan that sees imminent obstacles and avoids them. That's the premortem. And in 2021, the premortem offers HR teams an opportunity to learn from the pandemic and avoid worker downtime, the risk of lost productivity and continued employee disengagement.

Ready to learn something new?

How to do a premortem

Variations of the premortem have been around forever. Still, its popularity did not take off in earnest until Dr. Gary Klein introduced the methodology to readers of Harvard Business Review in the early 2000s. Today, it’s used by Fortune 100 companies, small-to-medium-size businesses and consultants around the world. According to research, your chances of success improve by over 30 percent if you attempt to predict failure before starting and change your behaviors and actions to avoid it.

How to use a premortem to help your organization reopen?

  1. Choose a task you’ve recently assigned to your human resources department, such as creating a hybrid return-to-work program.
  2. Set a timer for two minutes and start imagining the ways your team failed at achieving their goal.
  3. List all the rational, irrational, silly, or ridiculous, ways that your team could fail.
  4. When the timer goes off, stop writing and review your list.

What you have before you is a gift. It's a pathway to success. Address those hiccups and you have the beginning of a road map to achieving your goals. Fix those glitches as part of your project plan, and you'll improve your chance of success exponentially.

How the premortem can help you reopen

The premortem is a fantastic method for helping you think through anything:

  • Returning to work
  • Keeping employees safe
  • Rethinking your corporate learning strategy
  • Even remodeling your home

That's right. You can use the premortem in your personal life for career development, more effective communication or even home improvement.

For example, my husband and I were thinking about renovating our kitchen during the pandemic, but the premortem quickly showed that I have trouble sticking to a budget. So, we still have the same kitchen. But, now that the economy is opening up, we go out to eat and don't worry about the remodeling costs.

The premortem can work for you and your team, too.

When creating a plan in human resources, we often present our best ideas to leadership teams only to be disappointed. Our presentations and strategy documents come back with notes, red lines, or messages of rejection. So let's flip the script and anticipate those criticisms.

The premortem is about highlighting failure and beating it.

So, if you want to propose a different production schedule for your workforce, think like a CEO and identify what will go wrong. Or if you're interested in reallocating dollars to invest in training, identify your leadership team's concerns and answer those questions proactively.

You don't need a coach, a consultant or an author like me to get your HR team ready to reopen your business. You’ve done a great job this far. It’s important not to lose momentum. So, be brave. Be bold. Be courageous. Make a case for change, and be on the right side of history after COVID.

But also be smart and do the premortem beforehand.

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