Push Pause: The Compassionate Pre-Mortem

[Before you start reading. I committed to posting weekly, so I’m posting. It’s a reflection I started early last week, before May 25. It is hard to ignore what is happening in the US right now, and quite frankly, the world. The pain and injustices of black people – marginalized people – is all of our responsibility. I post today not blind to the inequities that exist but because of those inequities. I went into education for a reason and that reason has never been more clear. If we don’t think differently about how to cultivate a system where everyone has a right to thrive, then we are the problem. Perhaps what follows may provide a step to honoring the communities that we serve, wherever they may be.]

Wherever I seem to turn these days, people are posting plans for reopening, redesigning, or reimagining school for August and September. I get it. It’s a critical time in education. It’s during such moments, however, that stepping back can make a huge difference when it comes to creating a possible future. Unless we pause during this planning stage, “we will fail to see the blind spots of our change efforts, which are often based on rigid assumptions and agendas. We will fail to see that transforming systems is ultimately about transforming relationships among people who shape those systems.” (Peter Senge)

What could that look like? A key tool I return to again and again is the process of the pre-mortem. In brief, a pre-mortem is a meeting before a plan is implemented or a project starts in which a team imagines what might happen to cause it to fail. The team then works backward to create a plan to help prevent potential obstacles and increase the chances of success. This technique is recommended by behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists as an especially effective way of combatting cognitive bias and reducing project risk. I was introduced to the pre-mortem by a colleague during my days at @AltitudeLearning while designing an onboarding experience for teachers new to our platform. Since then I’ve used it for things such as developing our professional learning framework, in-service days, schedules, and projects with students. There was even one awkward moment that I tried to use it with my husband to plan an especially complicated climbing trip.

From Gamestorming

What do you do? The process is deceptively simple.

  • Prepare: Before you start the pre-mortem, make sure everyone is clear on the plan. And by everyone I mean a team of representative stakeholders. It’s best to have a full range of perspectives. I’ve messed this up before. For example, the first pre-mortem of our professional learning plan was with our senior leadership team. However, when I reran the process with a few teachers, I discovered a whole pile of challenges we couldn’t even see. Once everyone has the plan, drop the bomb and let them know the project was an epic fail.
  • Why Did the Project Fail? Give the team an hour or more to identify why the project failed. I usually start with individual brainstorming then shift to small groups. Tell them to be as imaginative as they can, capturing all their ideas in writing.
  • Share Reasons for Failure: Ask each person to share one item on their list and continue to go around the room until everyone has exhausted their lists. Record all reasons on a white board or a shared digital document. Depending on how long the list can get — and sometimes it’s overwhelmingly long – if need be, spend some time prioritizing which ones feel like challenges that significantly impact the success of the project.
  • Brainstorm with solutions: Get back into those small groups and begin to tackle possible solutions, mitigating risks to success and strengthening the plan through adding or revising their original step.

Here are a few prompts I’ve used to get the ball rolling:

Describe the failure.

  • What important stuff did we not do?
  • What unimportant stuff did we do?
  • What current problems remain?
  • What new problems emerged?

Consider Symptoms and Causes.

  • How will we know we failed?
  • What got in the way?
  • Was there something we lacked?
  • Was it not well coordinated? Communicated? Supported?

If you get this far, then it’s a win. You’ll get a whole bunch of mileage from this process. However, recently, I’ve added a new dimension to the pre-mortem using a lens of the Center for Systems Awareness’s Compassionate Systems Framework. It has elevated the process and guided me in considering more systemic outcomes. I haven’t played with this a bunch yet, but by simply reflecting on the the three core capacities of system leaders as part of this process, I noticed not only better plans but more authentic work.

The three capacities represent an inter-related set of competencies (as Peter would jokingly refer to as, “the three sides of the same coin” or, more practically, the three legs of a stool) for a deep commitment to learning.  As a result, they engender an alternative set of behaviors needed to allow a  group of people to work at their best so that the organization creates the results that matter to them. The first is a the spirit of deep intention.  The Learner/Leader crystallizes their vision of what actually are we trying to accomplish. The second leg represents the capacity for reflective conversation. The third leg is about seeing the larger system to understand complexity.  

Where does it fit? For the most part, the process is similar, but I’ve integrated additional reflective prompts to use during the pre-mortem stage to help uncover blind spots and pursue a more generative social field. I noticed in the first round of prompts, I focused teams more on reactive problem solving without acknowledging long-term value creation.

Additional Prompts:

  • Do we allow people to orient themselves toward what they truly care about?
  • Do we provide the space for people to change in ways they want to?
  • How does this align to our shared vision or help us continue to deepen our understanding of a shared vision?
  • Have we identified what we can do with the new thinking that emerges?
  • Do we build on our habits of reflection and inquiry?
  • How have we enabled that we all learn from the insights of individuals?

These few “simple” questions led to a big shift in my plans for a faculty conversations last week. Originally designed more as a workshop model where I had planned to solve what I perceived as a school-wide challenge, I completely shifted the structure to invite people to explore their own challenge, offering up shared tools as a lens to see if it helped them make sense of things they cared about. I shifted the bulk of the meeting from whole group to small group dialogue, bringing people back to share reflections and insights.

It was an interesting (good?) first step in re-orienting myself. So many of us are eager to step into this time of possibility with dreams that perhaps were seeded decades ago. (At least that is true in my case.) Yet following the approaches to change we’ve always followed is unlikely to lead to the potential we see, and likely to perpetuate the same systemic shortcomings. As Peter points out, “organizational self-interest becomes re-contextualized, as people discover that their and their organization’s success depends on creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part. This typically happens gradually as leaders help people articulate their deeper aspirations and build confidence based on tangible accomplishments achieved together.”

…. creating well-being within the larger systems of which they are a part. Right now, it feels like we have a long way to go.

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