Harness the Power of Time Travel for Innovation Success

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We’ve been enjoying Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao’s new book, ‘Scaling Up Excellence‘ and particularly liked a simple, but powerful exercise it outlines called the ‘pre-mortem’ – which we believe can help guide innovation success.

The pre-mortem has the honour of being Daniel Kahneman’s favourite approach to making better decisions, though it was developed by psychologist Gary Klein. It harnesses the power of mental time-travel to break people’s natural bias towards overestimating the chances that good things will happen to them and underestimating the odds that they will face failures, delays, and setbacks.

In short, the pre-mortem works by asking your innovation team to picture a point in the future (say 1 to 3 years down the line); then getting half the team to imagine the initiative you are about to launch was a disaster and the others to imagine it was a huge success – perhaps capturing this in the form of a newspaper article.

Instruct those participating to be as detailed as possible and look for details that wouldn’t normally be mentioned or considered. Once the exercise has been completed get both teams to read back their articles and capture the reasons they highlighted for failure and for success. This quick exercise should allow you to build a more comprehensive innovation plan that recognises key obstacles to overcome and key elements necessary for success. If it looks impossible to take account of any of these then you probably need to go back to the drawing board!

Whilst this seems incredibly simple it is a great way to encourage teams to anticipate and avoid the problems before starting. Experts have shown that this way of thinking helps overcome blind spots, bridge short-term and long-term thinking, avoid excessive optimism (in a safe environment) and finally challenge any illusion of consensus by making the future real.

Given the path to innovation success is fraught with difficulty and failure, any tool that helps identify and overcome risks is surely a no-brainer – especially one as simple, costless and effective as this.


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