By Lynn Holley
For me, inspiration often strikes at very inconvenient times, like when I’m driving. In 2014 after teaching a popular crisis communications class at the University of Illinois with my colleague Dennis Culloton, an aha moment came as I was in my car listening to the “Freakonomics Radio” podcast hosted by journalist Stephen Dubner. The topic on this particular day was “failure is your friend.” The guest was Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist who studies decision making. He had just written a book making waves in the world of business called “Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight.”
In a nutshell, Klein’s book looked at the reasons companies often fail to anticipate failures. He pinned much of the problem on a lack of out-of-the-box thinking and willingness to take risks that may lead to mistakes. Also, employees tend to shy away from being completely honest with superiors out of fear that their words will be misconstrued as negative even if their intention is to offer valuable insight into a situation.
So, what is Klein’s solution?
Klein’s solution is what he calls the “premortem.” It’s similar to a postmortem (an examination, investigation or process that takes place after death to determine the cause), but the idea of a premortem, according to Klein, “is to try and run through that process before the patient dies,” or in this case, before a project fails. Essentially, the goal is to investigate what might go wrong before it does.
Klein’s process involves gathering all important project team members in a room together. He asks them to think several months down the road and imagine the project has failed. He then gives each person two minutes to write down why they think the project failed. Their responses are used to compile a catalog of ways the project might fail.
Klein said the premortem “tempers overconfidence in a project” and “liberates people who might otherwise be afraid of looking like they’re not a team player.” Instead of being seen as a bad teammate, you’re part of a group looking for solutions.
So, what does this have to do with crisis communications?
Plenty. An organization’s public relations, marketing and/or sales departments are often called upon when a crisis erupts. However, expecting these teams to properly manage through a crisis without any prior crisis management planning is unrealistic. Their focus 99% of the time is on promoting the company and selling its products, not crisis management. Getting the team to focus on the realities of possible failure can help prevent a crisis altogether or give a company valuable guidance in solving a crisis more rapidly and effectively.
In the spring of 2015, I made crisis premortems (the process of students coming up with negative scenarios that might ruin a company’s reputation), a significant part of my crisis communications class curriculum. I believe those well-trained Debbie Downers might be their employer’s saviors one day.