Instagram and the value of a business premortem…

In the modern business world, positivity reigns supreme. If you’re not positive to the point of delirious and motivated to build a utopian future, the common wisdom is you’re doing it wrong.

But there’s power in the opposite too. In fact, there’s a major benefit to visualising scenarios in which things go wrong. It might sound strange and counterproductive, but in direct response to overly optimistic, naive thinking, many business leaders are encouraging their employees to think negatively.

In a brilliant Fast Company magazine piece on Instagram’s growth this month, there’s one really illuminating paragraph. Insta launched more features in December last (live streaming, stories, advertising options) than it ever has before. All of them were successful. But according to CEO Kevin Systrom, the reason behind this wasn’t ‘the power of positivity’, rather something very different.

“Every recent change the company has wrought sprang from the team asking itself ‘what would we do if Instagram as we knew it suddenly stopped mattering?’. What kind of decisions would we make? This unlocked a torrent of creativity. It allowed us to be more risk seeking than we would have been in the past. Ironically, it would almost be risker not to do something like this”

The technique that Systrom describes actually has a name coined by psychologist Gary Klein – the premortem. In a premortem, a project manager must envision what could go wrong—what will go wrong—in advance, before starting. Why? Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish. A premorten insulates the company by preparing it for the worst. It opens people’s minds and allows the threat of adversity to stir creativity.

In a postmorten, we reflect around what happened in death. But having a ‘worst case scenario’ plan alleviates the need for a postmortem in most cases, since the company becomes more robust and antifragile to threats. It’s about preparing for disruption and working this into your plans. In earthquake threatened areas like Japan, engineers build slack into buildings to insulate from tremors. A premortem is the business equivalent. We can anticipate, pre-empt and then mitigate possible future problems.

The premortem goes back to the Stoics, who had an even better name for it: premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils). The concept may seem pessimistic, but actually it’s just pragmatic, realistic and smart preparation.

As the old quote goes:

“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.”

Think of it as pre-emptive hindsight, a decision insurance policy to protect your future self.

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Further Reading:

Simple ways to prevent failure
The overthinkers guide to launching your next project
A simple technique to save any project from failure
Performing a premortem
The stoic art of negative visualisation