When we fail, we often look back and try and figure out the reasons why. But what if we took a more proactive approach? When a new client comes on board with us, Jared asks them one simple question: ‘if your venture was to fail in 4 years time, what do you think the main cause would be?’
We’re lucky enough to work with a range of businesses at every stage of their journey. From designers, to cyclists, to pub quizzers, every business is different in their own unique way. They’re all doing amazing things and we’re so grateful to play even a small part in what they do. But no matter how successful we might be, or how close we might be to achieving our biggest goals, we could all benefit from asking ourselves that one simple question.
The premortem and preventing disaster.
During a post-mortem, we look at things that have died to try and figure out the cause. Instead, during a premortem, we imagine that a project has failed and then work backwards to discover the most likely reasons why, so we can prevent it from ever happening. It’s essentially a way of safe-guarding against disaster.
The premortem pivots on one fundamental question: if your business was to fail a few years down the line, what would the main cause be?
Maybe you’ve not quite nailed down your value proposition, or you didn’t get in front of the right people. It’s important to think about this, identify what the biggest risks are and how you can manage them to stop your business from failing. Then it’s about figuring out the steps to prevent that from ever happening.
Future-proofing through forward-thinking.
Imagine yourself in four years time. Your business is failing, you’re losing work and your income is plummeting. What would that look like? How would it feel? And what can you do right now, today, to prevent that from ever happening?
We’ve all heard the old adage that failing to plan is planning to fail. But when it comes to running a successful business, it really does ring true. Especially in times as volatile as these.
This time last year, part of our team was working remotely whilst travelling around Asia. If you told us last year that 2020 would see us all working from home indefinitely, unable to see our team or our clients in person, and that we would be focusing all our energy on helping our clients navigate the effects of a global pandemic, we would probably have had a hard time believing you. Of course, we can’t prepare for every possible scenario, or for things that are outwith our control (covid, we’re looking at you), but the current times really highlight the importance of preventative planning. If you don’t plan for your business to survive in ordinary times, how is it going to survive a pandemic?
If you don’t plan for your business to survive in ordinary times, how is it going to survive a pandemic?
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen. Our lives can be turned upside down at the drop of a hat, leaving us with little to no idea of what lies around the corner. 2020 has been a rollercoaster ride for all of us in so many ways, so let’s put our best foot forward and take from it what we can. Adversity is inevitable, but it’s how we prepare for it and come back from it that defines us as a business.
So how do you conduct the perfect premortem?
Conducting a successful premortem is all about adopting the right state of mind. You can get as granular or as broad as you need to with this exercise. Just asking yourself what could potentially go wrong can be enough to highlight any problem areas you need to focus on. Or you can go into more depth and analyse those problem areas as a team, really looking at every aspect of the business, then coming up with strategies to address them together.
As with any type of future-planning, it’s always better to be realistic rather than optimistic. In fact, it’s actually better to be slightly pessimistic than over-optimistic.
As humans, we have a tendency to be overly optimistic. When we imagine our future, we often idealise the best possible scenario, envisioning what would happen if our biggest dreams come true. We can get so caught up in how we imagine things could be, that we can sometimes forget about the obstacles, the hurdles, and the problems we need to overcome to actually get there. If we end up getting so carried away that we become detached from reality, convinced that things will work out whatever we do, then things can get a little risky.
The premortem is all about mitigating the risks of wishful thinking by imagining the worst-possible scenario instead. It’s essentially a quick exercise in doomsday thinking. It might seem strange to encourage negative thinking, but when used in a way that actively prevents negative outcomes, it can be a pretty powerful tool.
The premortem is a time for being truly honest with yourself. It can be easy to ignore the little niggles in our businesses, the things we know we could be doing better, but maybe aren’t spending the time improving. Especially if it’s something laborious, time-consuming or an aspect of the business that isn’t enjoyable, or one that we simply don’t have time to handle. But these little things, if ignored for long enough, can snowball and create even bigger problems down the line. We’ve seen this time and again with businesses and their bookkeeping.
Businesses that don’t regularly set aside the time to do their bookkeeping often run into problems. Unreconciled items pile up each month, the information in their accounting solution isn’t up-to-date, which means any forecasts they do won’t be accurate either. They can’t get an accurate glimpse into their future because they don’t have enough accurate data to drive the right decisions. This can also have a knock-on effect on things like tax, as they’re unable to get an accurate glimpse of how their business is performing. And on it goes. Every decision they make will be underpinned by inaccurate or outdated information.
Setting the time aside to do those little things before they spiral out of control could mean the difference between a booming business and one that’s soon struggling to survive.
It’s much harder to achieve your goals when you don’t have a solid grasp on where you currently stand. But the premortem is a chance to confront those niggles and nip them in the bud. Setting the time aside to do those little things before they spiral out of control could mean the difference between a booming business and one that’s soon struggling to survive.
The premortem is a time to let your inner cynic shine through. During a premortem, the glass is always half empty. It’s about finding the biggest problem areas to see where things could have potentially gone wrong in your future scenario. To do this, try asking yourself the following questions:
- What happened to cause that?
- Why didn’t we see that coming?
- What are we most nervous about right now?
- Where did we discover blind spots on past projects?
- Is there anything we could be doing, or should be doing better, but aren’t?
- How quickly can we respond when something goes wrong?
- Who could own each of our biggest risk areas?
Be proactive and take action.
The premortem isn’t the time for burying your head in the sand. It’s about spotting future problems and then taking action to prevent them from happening. Once you’ve assessed your future scenario and got a handle on your biggest problem areas, come up with a game plan to address them and then hold everyone accountable.
Incorporating the premortem into your wider business strategy.
When you break it down, the premortem is really just a way of forecasting. We often think of forecasting in terms of cash flow or finances, but it’s equally important to forecast for all areas of our businesses. After conducting your premortem, come up with a prevention plan and make time to regularly assess this alongside your other forecasting activities. This might involve discussing the plan with other directors or members of your business and keeping a close eye on your risk areas and what you’re actively doing to mitigate them.
Looking forwards, not backwards.
At its heart the premortem is proactive in its approach. It’s about taking the initiative to act on things before they happen. It’s a way of carving out the kind of future you desire so you can build a business that’s made to last. It’s a mental exercise in dispelling that worst case scenario and putting the groundwork in to replace it with your dream scenario.
We might not know what’s coming around the bend, but all we can do is keep looking to the future. Let’s imagine the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of organisations we want to build, then take the steps that lead us there.