Dr. Gary Klein is one of the world’s leading experts on decision making. In his work with nuclear power plants, he noticed something interesting: efforts to eradicate mistakes sometimes made plants less safe.
“People talk about having ‘zero-tolerance’ for errors. It turns out that, when you do research, zero-tolerance for errors usually winds up leaving you less safe, rather than more, because people know that they’ve got to hide their errors,” Klein explains. “Instead of being candid about them, and learning from them, they are trying to deflect blame or to make sure that people don’t discover what went wrong.”
To overcome this dangerous tendency, Klein says leaders need to work develop what he calls a “culture of candor” in their organizations.
“Instead of being critical and impatient, become curious,” Klein says. “Instead of saying, Well, this was a mistake, let’s make sure we don't make it again, say, Well, this was a mistake, but we have good people here and they’ve made this mistake. How did we go down this path? What beliefs did we hold that were getting in our way? It requires a change in mindset – and to use those as opportunities to build richer mental models, rather than to have a more punitive arrangement where people are starting to hide their mistakes.”
One way that leaders can start to create a culture of candor is to employ contrarian thinking tools such as PreMortem Analysis, which Klein developed in the late 1980s when he was running a research and development company.
“We would do projects, and most of the projects were successes. But not all of them. We had some failures. And when a project fails, you do an after-action review, a post-mortem. At a certain point I said, ‘Why don’t we move this up? Why don’t we do this at the beginning, during the kickoff meeting?’ That’s why we called it a pre-mortem,” he says. “Now, everybody’s familiar with a post-mortem. It comes from the medical community. After a patient dies, you want to find out why. So, you conduct an autopsy and an inquiry, and hopefully you’ll find out why the patient died. Then the physician knows, so that helps the physician get smarter. The physician can compare the notes with the family, so now the family finally learns why their loved one died. If it’s something unusual, you might write it up and put it in a medical journal, so the community learns from it. Everybody benefits from a post-mortem – everybody except the patient because he’s dead!”
Klein started doing “pre-mortems” in an effort to prevent failure from happening in the first place.
“At the end of a kickoff meeting, we would say, ‘Okay, we’re starting a new project. Everybody is all jazzed up, everybody’s enthusiastic. Now, let’s take a few minutes here. Just lean back and relax. We’re going to do a little thought experiment and pretend that I’m looking at a crystal ball, and I see six months later – whatever the appropriate amount of time is – my gosh, this is really ugly! What I’m seeing in the crystal ball is this project failed. The course of action that we picked, didn’t work out at all. It was a major disaster. The crystal ball isn’t showing us why; it just shows us that this failed. Now, everybody around the table, take two minutes and write down all the reasons you can think of for why this plan failed,’ Then I time them and I really just give them two minutes. I just want the major issues that they can think of,” Klein says, adding that goal is to come up with all the different ways the plan could fail.
The issues surfaced by a PreMortem exercise are very different those people come up with when they are simply asked “What could possibly go wrong?” If you do that, people are likely to already be so wedded to the idea that they cannot perceive any fault with it or, even if they do, are likely to feel too much pressure to go along with the plan to effectively criticize it.
PreMortem prevents this sort of self-censorship, Klein says.
“We’ve done research with this. If you just ask people after they come up with a plan, Does anybody have any critique, any problems? nobody says a word. But with a PreMortem, it’s a contest to show that you can come up with a good problem that other people hadn’t even thought of,” he continues. “You tell them, This has failed, so there’s no ambiguity. Then you say, Show me how smart you are, by the kinds of problems you can identify, the things you can anticipate that we haven’t considered so far. I’ve seen it become a bit of a competition for people to show what they can identify. It also gives people permission to voice problems that they ordinarily would never have mentioned.”
In addition to helping decision makers identify the ways the plan could fail while there is still time to correct any deficiencies or develop contingencies, the PreMortem process communicates a willingness on the part of those decision makers to listen to disconfirming evidence and hear alternate points-of-view. And that leads to more innovative thinking and better decisions over time.
“It’s not just about creating a culture of candor,” Klein says. “It’s about creating a culture of curiosity as well.”