An ounce of pre-mortem is worth a pound of post

August 16, 2017

High angle shot of a mature businessman giving a presentation in the boardroom

In a crisis, your brain doesn’t work properly. Your hippocampus, which is responsible for processing memories, hits the stress button and releases cortisol into your system. It then shuts down until there is enough of the chemical circulating in your body. That means, for the first few minutes of a stressful event, your brain is unreliable.


After a crisis, companies will often do a postmortem. They will try to figure out all of the things that went wrong and make a plan to try to avoid such a crisis in the future. Postmortems can be highly effective—for that kind of crisis. But if a different kind of crisis presents itself, that postmortem will most probably not offer any solutions. Couple that with the fact that everyone involved in the crisis is working with a malfunctioning brain, and you will find yourselves facing all sorts of problems.


Knowing this, many organizations are turning to creating pre-mortems. Pre-mortems not only help prevent crises, but can also help mitigate the effects of a crisis should one develop.


The idea of a pre-mortem is to imagine a crisis or a failure, list out all the things that could go wrong to create the adverse situation in the first place, and then to plan how to mitigate the problem. Once you have developed a pre-mortem and written up your strategy for how to deal with it, you then will know what to do should that crisis arise. Your brain need not work properly, all you have to do is to reach for your plan and you’re good to go.


How to create a pre-mortem


Step One: Have a brainstorming session to list out every conceivable problem. Okay, this could be an immense undertaking, so it’s often best to have separate meetings to look at different classes or crises. For example, you can develop pre-mortems for natural disasters (though hopefully you already have strategies in place). You can develop pre-mortems for cyber attacks. If you have a big presentation or business trip, you can have a pre-mortem session for that. As is the case with all brainstorming sessions, throw every idea people come up with, no matter how crazy, onto a whiteboard. Think of anything and everything that could go wrong, from the insanely large to the fairly minor. Keep coming up with ideas until you’ve run out.


Step Two: Focus on the top ten problems. Choose the ones that are the most likely and the ones that could be the most devastating. Ignore the problems you’ll have no control over.


Step Three: Create solutions. This part is actually the easiest. Einstein once said, “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” Again, part of the reason why crises are so problematic is that, in the moment, people aren’t thinking clearly. If you’re looking at a problem as a hypothetical, it’s very easy to figure out how to deal with it. When creating a solution, don’t forget to involve all the parties in your organization who may be affected. For example, in your brainstorming session you may not have included every department, but perhaps you came up with a problem that will affect your janitorial staff. Be sure to include them in the solution-storming process. Once you have created your solutions, be sure to write up a plan and distribute it to all relevant parties.


Even if you create several pre-mortems, you may still be caught off guard. However, the more pre-mortems you create, the more likely you’ll have a better global sense of how to deal with a previously unforeseen situation.


For more information on crisis and disaster prevention for your facility, contact Vanguard Resources.