Performing a “Premortem” on your Current Life Path

I recently came across the idea of a premortem when reading Steven Johnson’s wonderful book, Farsighted. Cognitive scientist Gary Klein coined the term in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article. Drawing on research that found that imaging that an event has already occurred increases the ability to identify future outcomes, Klein and his colleagues developed the premortem as a way to identify potential risks at the beginning of a project. Unlike the more familiar postmortem, a premortem:

comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.

The premortem not only allows teams to identify potential risks early on, it also can help team members become more sensitive to early signs of trouble or hidden roadblocks.

Both of these benefits are highly advantageous in the Life Design process. Many students are so focused on one specific career path – often one to which they have aspired since high school – that they are blind to the many events and circumstances that could potentially throw them off course. And because they haven’t stopped to think about what could go wrong, they are often slow to recognize or adapt to issues that do arise.

For these reasons, I wanted to sketch how a premortem activity might be incorporated into a typical Life Design lesson in which students are asked to imagine multiple versions of their future self (whether Odyssey Plans, or the less structured sketches that I prefer). The goal would be for them to identify the myriad ways that their current life path (Life #1) might veer off course before moving on to Life #2. Here’s how this activity might work:

STEP 1:

After sketching out Life #1 (see above for an example), ask students to imagine that they “failed” to achieve this life and invite them to spend 10 minutes working individually or in small groups to ideate all of the possible reasons why the group members lives didn’t work out as planned. As with any ideation activity, the goal is to get past the tendency to self-censor in order to generate as many ideas – including wild, random, or implausible ideas – as possible. At the end of this activity, each student should have at least a couple dozen ideas for how their life might not end up like they imagine, ranging from the obvious (failing organic chemistry, discovering they don’t like working with patients) to the serious (struggles with mental health, having to leave school due to financial issues) to the fantastical (all medical schools shut down at once, aliens invade Earth and all college-aged students are drafted into a global army to wage a space war). Again, the goal isn’t to generate a list of the most likely reasons their life won’t turn out as planned, so encourage students to avoid throwing out any ideas for being “too far fetched.” After all, how many of us could have predicted three years ago that a global pandemic would shut down most of the world’s economy and completely rearrange how and where we work?

Even taking this initial step would help students see all the ways, both good and bad, that their life could veer off their planned course. This alone might help them embrace the Three Lives activity as a way to explore the many opportunities before them, rather than simply to reinforce the path they are already on.

STEP 2:

One of the benefits of a premortem is that once students have identified the many ways things can not go as planned, they can begin to design their lives with these potential obstacles in mind. The key however, is recognizing which of these setbacks can and should be addressed through the Life Design process. Have students spend a few minutes organizing their list into the following buckets:

  1. DESIGN CHALLENGES – this bucket should include those potential obstacles and points of failure that the student recognizes are possible and that they want to be intentional about finding ways to make sure they don’t happen. Failing organic chemistry or not doing well on the MCAT would fall into this bucket. But so too might things like not developing meaningful relationships because you were so focused on studying for organic chemistry or the MCAT. These are potential failures that students can keep in mind when designing their lives.
  2. PIVOT POINTS – this bucket would include two distinct types of possibilities. One is those points of failure that can be anticipated but can’t necessarily be avoided, or can only be avoided with the benefit of hindsight. An aspiring investment banker knows that a recession that impacts hiring in the financial sector is a distinct possibility, but has little control over the global economy and lacks the ability to time the job market. The second type of possibility is one that can be anticipated but that shouldn’t be avoided because it allows for possibility or insight. A pre-med student realizing during a clinical volunteer experience that she doesn’t like working with patients is gaining valuable insight into her career. Both possibilities will require the student to pivot from their original design.
  3. OUT OF YOUR CONTROL (things that can’t be anticipated or avoided) – Life is full of events both big and small that we don’t see coming but that require us to modify our plans when they do happen. Winning the Powerball jackpot, being diagnosed with a rare illness, and watching the world plunge into a global pandemic all fall into this category. Unlike the Pivot Points above, there is no way to anticipate if or when these events will occur, making them difficult to incorporate into the Life Design Process.

As students sort their ideas into these buckets, there are a couple things to keep in mind.

  • Potential setbacks/obstacles can appear, albeit in slightly different forms, in multiple buckets. Issues related to health and well-being can be categorized into Design Challenges (not attending to one’s mental health, not exercising, etc.), Pivot Points (more serious related health issues such as a personal or family history of illness or depression), and Out of Your Control (diagnoses that come from out of the blue).
  • Potential setbacks/obstacles and how they are sorted vary by individual and can be very personal. Having to drop out of school due to financial circumstances might be a wild possibility (“Out of Your Control”) for one student but an ever-present reality for another (“Design Challenge”). For this reason I would probably recommend that even if you did STEP 1 in groups (to take advantage of radical collaboration) that the sorting process be an individual activity.

STEP 3:

Allow students the opportunity to review their lists and reflect upon their decisions to categorize them in the way that they did. Are some of the potential setbacks/obstacles that they have identified truly out of their control or do they have more agency than they are giving themselves credit for? Are they perhaps overconfident in their ability to exert control over people and processes that are really beyond their reach? Are they so focused on achieving this particular outcome that they are designing away opportunities for discovering more about themselves and the possible lives before them?

The goal is not to avoid failure or attempt to impose certainly on what often times is an ambiguous world. Rather, by working to identify potential points of failure they can embrace the ambiguity of the future more confident in their ability to use the design thinking process to solve for potential problems or pivot when new opportunities arise.

NEXT STEPS:

From here, there are a number of ways that you can use these lists for future activities (and if you are using Miro, it is easy to reference these lists throughout a course or multi-day workshop). The Pivot Points are a great way to introduce Life #2. Rather than asking students what they would do if Life #1 didn’t work out, you can ask them how they would pivot if some of the setbacks on their Pivot Point lists actually happened. Especially in a class for first-year students (like the Arrive and Thrive class I sometimes teach at Hopkins), the list of Design Challenges could serve as the starting point for a design thinking activity in which students identify the habits and practices that will maximize their chance of success in college.

These lists are also a great way to set up a larger reflective activity around ambiguity. I use some of the activities in Andrea Small and Kelly Schmutte’s Navigating Ambiguity as a way to help students embrace the idea that much of their future is unknown and out of their control. Rather than something to be feared or avoided, design thinking allows us to embrace this ambiguity and remain open to the possibilities and opportunities it offers.

I hope to try out some of these ideas over the next few months and will write up my findings in future posts.

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