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The senior executives decided the company needed a state-of-the-art customer service program. They appointed a Project Team and directed them to implement the vision. The team’s first task was to write an action plan. They spent weeks putting together a detailed outline of everything that needed to be done.

When the plan had been written, facilitators introduced the team to the Pre-mortem, a tool that:

  • Legitimizes doubts,
  • Encourages a search for threats, and
  • Frees the imagination.

Harvard Business Review says “Pre-mortems don’t just help teams to identify potential problems. They also reduce the kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed by people who are over-invested in a project.”With that background, the facilitators presented the following scenario to the team:

Imagine we are a year into the future. We implemented our plan as it now exists, and the outcome was a disaster. Take 10 minutes and identify every reason you can think of for that disaster. 

Putting thoughts in writing is crucial, because it avoids the groupthink problem of people agreeing with others even when they don’t. Psychologists say groupthink discourages the kind of healthy disagreement that is a necessary part of good decision-making.

Reasons For Failure

Here are seven reasons identified by the team, grouped by frequency of mentions:

Mentioned by almost everyone:

  • Poor execution.

Mentioned by three out of four:

  • Inadequate technology.
  • Inadequate funding.
  • Inadequate training.

Mentioned by two out of three:

  • Insufficient commitment.
  • Leadership impatience.
  • The basic assumption is flawed.

Then we organized the same data a different way –  by area of responsibility – and saw a different picture.

Senior Leadership failures included:

  • Inadequate technology.
  • Inadequate funding.
  • The basic assumption is flawed.
  • Insufficient commitment.
  • Impatience.

Project Team failures included:

  • Inadequate training.
  • Poor execution.

A Quick Analysis

The first way of grouping these reasons for failure implies that those elements with more mentions are more important. This is possible, but not necessarily so. The second way is more telling: The biggest reasons for failure were the responsibility of senior leadership.

Every plan is imperfect and every activity will encounter problems, but some problems are bigger than others. Experienced businesspeople know that inadequate technology and inadequate funding are each capable of independently guaranteeing failure.

And here’s an even bigger kicker: if the initial assumption is flawed, the entire undertaking is a pointless waste of resources. In this case, the senior executives had handed marching orders to the team instead of asking them to first determine the nuts-and-bolts feasibility of the vision.

The project? It was abandoned.

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