The Premortem

I regularly teach courses on economic development and complex humanitarian emergencies, and I often employ a case study approach. When students examine past events, it is easy for them — and for me — to fall victim to hindsight bias. We assume that the prospects for failure should have been just as evident in the past when decisions were made as they are to us when we are evaluating those decisions in the present.

Even if teachers take hindsight bias into account when explaining to students why incorrect answers are incorrect, we often see students making the same mistakes over and over again.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman credits fellow psychologist Gary Klein with the idea for engaging in a premortem when making decisions. The premortem is a critique that is crowd-sourced on a very small scale. It can also be described as a quick and dirty outside review. Here’s how it works:

  • A person presents a proposed decision to a group of people who are knowledgeable about the subject matter.
  • The group is told “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster” (Kahneman, p. 264).

I can see this technique being applied to all sorts of assignments, especially proposals for thesis research or project design. Although many undergraduates don’t have field research or public policy experience, a classroom of students should be able to think of and write about a few ways that the best laid plans can go awry. Including experienced students as a panel of experts during the ensuing discussion  — for example, students who have already conducted thesis research while studying abroad  — might make the process work even better.

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