Over 25 years ago a friend and I closed on a business deal that was the worst deal we ever made. Before we got to the closing there were many “yellow and red lights”, but I didn’t see them…I kept moving towards the closing. I have subsequently referred to this as “transaction momentum”, which is when there are so many forces pushing everyone toward a closing that you fail to back-off when you should. I learned many lessons from that experience and now regularly use a form of pre-mortem analysis to stop and think before closing.
The Challenger Disaster
Recently I heard a podcast on Freakonomics called Failure is Your Friend. In the podcast they recounted the experience of Allan McDonald, who was the senior person from Morton Thiokol at the launch site in Florida when the Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986. Morton Thiokol was the manufacturer of the o-rings on the Challenger, which failed that day and caused the explosion.
Allan McDonald was the only person who spoke-up the day before the launch and was ignored that day by NASA and overruled by his supervisors. The reason he spoke-up was that the temperature the night before the launch was expected to drop below 32 degrees and the o-rings had not been tested for outside temperatures that low. Since NASA had a policy then that you had to “prove something would fail” in order to stop a launch and McDonald could only say, “the o-rings had not been tested yet in cold temperatures,” the launch couldn’t be stopped. McDonald refused to sign-off for the launch, but his supervisors did. The launch went off and we all know what happened.
The post-mortem investigation discovered that the o-ring materials didn’t expand and contract effectively in very cold temperatures, and frankly Florida rarely had those low temperatures and no one thought of that. Once o-rings are frozen, they don’t expand properly to stop gases from flowing – and the leak of those gases led to the explosion.
In his book Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein describes two questions we can ask of a team before they get to the end of a project or the launch or the closing. Before you ask these two questions, you want the group to understand that everyone wants to understand what might happen and what you can do to minimize side effects. Everyone needs to feel safe giving feedback – no one will be criticized for their comments.
The two questions are:
- Close your eyes. We are now in the future, right after the launch or closing date. The project has failed. Write down all the reasons you think it failed. (Give everyone only two minutes to write down their reasons. Go around the group and ask each person to share their top reason.)
- Then ask the group to take 2-3 minutes and write down what they would do to make sure the project is successful. Have the group share their ideas and have participants expand on the ideas of others.
Many organizations have developed “post-mortem” procedures so they can learn what went right and wrong after the project is finished or launched. Often the people involved feel pretty badly if things go poorly and sometimes get fired. Wouldn’t everyone be better-off if we stopped along the way and asked pre-mortem questions?
I wish I had done that 25 years ago.