How to Tell When Your Team Has a Workable Plan of Action

One key technique for determining whether you have a workable plan of action is to conduct a premortem, a review of possible sources of failure in advance with a goal to avoid them, or at least reduce their impact and likelihood of occurring.

A Workable Plan of Action

“A danger foreseen is half avoided.”
English Proverb

In “Sources of Power: How People Make DecisionsGary Klein offers a checklist and a process, the latter borrowed from Karl Weick, for reaching a working consensus. First his list of the key elements of a plan:

  1. Common purpose and high level goals
  2. Clear objective, common description of the desired outcome
  3. The sequence of steps in the plan.
  4. The reasons for these steps
  5. The key decisions that may have to be made.
  6. Outcomes to be avoided (anti-goals or non-goals).
  7. Constraints and other considerations.

These would normally be framed as a narrative:

  • Situation: here is what we believe that we face
  • Task (Course of Action): what we have agreed to do
  • Intent: our reasons why we have chosen this course of action
  • Concerns: risks and potential events or developments we will watch out for
  • Calibration: a premortem exercise where the team assumes that the plan has failed and brainstorms likely reasons why and ways to improve the plan to minimize or avoid the risks.

This checklist and narrative for describing a workable plan of action provides not only a useful basis for reaching a working consensus at a team level but also in reaching a working agreement with customers and getting feedback from advisors:

  • Make sure you have agreement on the facts of the situation and a range of hypotheses where you don’t have strong data.
  • Don’t agree to a course of action without understanding the larger goal, key risks and outcomes to be avoided, and doing at least one round of premortem review where you agree on the most likely causes of failure
  • Whenever an advisor suggests a particular course of action get an explanation of what alternatives were also considered and how they were evaluated.
  • Consider not only the “Plan A” sequence but the likely decisions and branch points: what data will you want to have in hand to go with Plan B, or Plan J.

A roundup of some other posts on planning and premortem

Update Apr-29-2014 : Malcolm Bell talks about using premortem technique in “How I killed Mailcloud’s 21,000 users today.” He included two useful references:

  • There’s a great Harvard Business School guest post on this here, by Gary Klein.
  • Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. We have used prospective hindsight to devise a method called a premortem, which helps project teams identify risks at the outset.

Update April-28-2015: Seth Godin suggests in “Good Design (and serial numbers)” that “When we think about what might go wrong, we’re more likely to design something that goes right.”


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