Is intuition in our work important? The value of pre-mortem analysis

Is intuition in our work important? The value of pre-mortem analysis

August 2018

Intuitive decisions often consider a far richer set of data, and use more complex algorithms, than decisions taken consciously with a small amount of explicit information.

They often combine experience built up over years, subtle cues from colleagues and risk calculations that, if performed explicitly, would be overwhelming.

And they are fast, by design. Decide-before-you-get-eaten-by-a-bear fast, in fact.

Sleepy wild bear rests head on paws with large claws

Intuition – good or bad?

The point is, intuitive decisions are – whether you know it or not – very well thought through. The ‘gut feeling’ of an experienced colleague should certainly not be discounted.

But intuitive decisions are difficult to document and difficult to explain to another person.

In our modern, logical world, people are reluctant to even voice purely intuitive opinions for fear of seeming irrational. Yet we can probably all point to decisions we have made in our lives that were based purely on intuition. For example, choice of house, partner or job. And that time proved were some of the best decisions we ever made.

It may not surprise that interviewers generally decide on a candidate in the first 10 seconds, whether they believe so or not. What’s interesting is that such decisions are generally regarded as invalid. Why?

What the research says

Research has shown that students, shown 10 seconds of silent video of a new lecturer, form qualitative judgements of the lecturer’s talent that are barely distinguishable from those formed by students who experience several full lectures in person.

We should not underestimate the power of intuition in complex decision making, just because we can’t always see how it happens. And we should certainly never ignore an experienced person’s gut feeling that something may be wrong, even if they can’t yet say why.

Magnetic field

Allowing for intuition

In a creative workshop or brainstorm we typically aim to create a non-critical environment, to enable discovery of novel solutions that may otherwise remain suppressed. Why not create the same open group dynamic specifically for allowing people to express negative ideas?

When a large project fails, there are frequently people within the company (or team) whose intuition told them there was a problem long ago, yet there was no forum in which to feel safe expressing such a view.

In one reported case in a Japanese multi-national, a  global team publicly expressed belief that a project was on track for weeks. However, each member privately believed it would fail. Later investigations revealed each team member had grave doubts but believed or hoped someone other than them would ultimately break ranks. Unsurprisingly, the cost of eventual failure was greater than if they had spoken up.

The pre-mortem

The pre-mortem was designed to address this problem. A pre-mortem is a meeting at which a team gets to determine, before starting a project, why it failed.

They imagine a future time when the project has gone spectacularly wrong and imagine flaws that risk project failure. Then they figure out what mitigations to put in place to address the flaws before the job begins.

Two people jump from the back of a plane

What’s unique about a pre-mortem (as compared to, say, an FMEA meeting or a risk analysis session) is this ‘prospective hindsight’ approach. Research has shown that this increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%*.

As with a creative brainstorm, the meeting tone is uncritical, with no suggestion shot down. If you have a bad feeling about a particular risk, get it out in the open.

In one approach, participants privately list their concerns, then take turns reading out issues, until all have been aired. This prevents extroverts dominating. What’s important in this first phase of the pre-mortem is to treat everyone’s gut feeling with respect and try understanding the source of it.

In the second phase, the team determines what the mitigation will be for each concern. Or, if it’s agreed that a particular item may not be a risk after all, makes a commitment to revisit the pre-concern later to see if it has become any less improbable.

Participants know that no concern raised can be ‘swept under the carpet’ by an over-optimistic project manager.

The benefits of the pre-mortem are threefold:

  1. Risks not identified during formal project planning are discovered before they become expensive issues
  2. Everyone is on board. No-one secretly harbours a concern which nobody would listen to
  3. People who identify a serious flaw in the project plan are valued for their experience and foresight, not bypassed

In the words of the Danish Physicist Niels Bohr, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. But the pre-mortem at least makes it a little easier.

*Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado

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