Experiment pre-mortem: Imagining and dealing with causes of failure

I am, for the most part, a relentless optimist. I embrace my inner Pollyanna. I regularly explore my goals with the Imagine Wild Success technique. Most people know this part of me, because I’m often the first to find the silver lining in any cloud.

Here’s something less visible but also very useful: I also use worrying productively. I plan ahead so that I can make myself a strong safety net. I go through mental fire drills so that I can figure out how to respond to various situations. I use the stoic practice of negative visualization to deal with loss before I have to deal with it.

I use pessimism in order to enable and support optimism. For example, a project pre-mortem is a great way to imagine causes of failure – and think about how you can prevent or address them.

I’m about ten months into this 5-year experiment with entrepreneurship and self-directed time. There are many ways it could fail. The good thing about framing it as an experiment is that even failure can give me valuable information. The main “real failure” is not being able to collect and make use of the insights it gives me. Here’s that and other things that could make this a waste of time:

20121210 business planning - experiment premortem

When I write down my ghosts, they become less scary. Knowing that the potential failures have been written down, defined, and (somewhat) planned for, I can free myself up to think about the flip side: what does success look like? how do I get there?

What are your potential reasons to fail? How can you deal with them?

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  • James

    This is a fantastic idea, Sacha. It seems just as important to reverse engineer hypothetical failure as it is to reverse engineer hypothetical success. I’ll have to think about my reasons…

    How do you think about randomness in this context?

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    By randomness, what do you mean? =)

    There are lots of random things I don’t explicitly plan for, but if I’ve got a generally good safety net and I assume that unexpected things will happen (see the Black Swan book), then I should be all right.

  • James

    Hmmm I replied a few days ago but the server was being funky, I think :) As you note, it’s impossible to plan for every random outcome. I tend to think the role of randomness is pretty huge for start ups; just as we see surprisingly incompetent people succeed now and then, it’s possible to do everything “right” and still not reach a desired outcome due to randomness (an anchor client backs away for a personal reason, laws change, a weird event generates negative publicity for the industry…) I’m just making stuff up, but unlike a large company, a new small business can be like a seedling that’s easily affected by unpredictable events that are hard to assign causal attribution to pre-mortem. But as you note, that’s what the safety net is there for (though I don’t think you’ll need it!). Good luck!

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Oh, sorry about that! It could’ve been when I was upgrading WordPress.

    I’ve read a lot about business success and failure, so I know to not take “failure” personally. I could have a great idea and be a great person, but if things don’t line up, then I need to be flexible! =) If nothing comes out of these five years except for a good story, well, people have worked with much worse situations, so I should be able to figure things out going forward.

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