Opinion: Want to improve development outcomes? Anticipate the failures. Here's how.

Susan Davis from Improve International provides a step-by-step guide for hosting a "pre-mortem," a strategy in which a team imagines that a project has failed, and then works backward to determine what potentially lead to the failure. Photo by: Krzysztof Puszczyński

We’ve all been in this meeting — you know the one — where knowledgeable people have concerns but are reluctant to express reservations about a project. So plans march forward, while those who might have valuable insights keep quiet. The result for the global health and development sector is that far too many projects fail. There is a better way. So if you take away just one message today, let it be this: “Imagining that an event has already occurred increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30 percent.

The better way is called a “pre-mortem” — a strategy in which a team imagines that a project has failed, and then works backward to determine what potentially lead to the failure. Like a medical post-mortem, you figure out why the patient died so you save future patients by not repeating the same mistakes. You do it in advance in a way that safely provides space for stakeholders, experts, and dissenters to share concerns, improve chances for success, and not kill the proverbial patient. And unlike a post-mortem, which is often completed and then sent to the morgue so-to-speak, pre-mortems live on.

Pre-mortems have been used for years in the business world, but infrequently in the global health and development sectors where they could make a world of difference, not just to prevent costly mistakes and risks of failure, but also to reduce risks to the communities we serve and the sustained outcomes after a project that we need.

Case in point are water, sanitation and hygiene projects that are filled with good intentions — and broken handles and rusty pumps. Because access to safe water is so fundamental to health and development, WASH projects have typically focused on immediate needs — let’s get that well built quickly — and underemphasized the long-term needs — like who’s going to maintain the well and its pump, who’s going to pay for replacement parts, and are those parts going to be available? When resources and time are not invested in removing bottlenecks from systems and strengthening critical needs and follow-on support, poor water or sanitation services result, and good hygiene behaviors lapse. The challenge of maintaining WASH services is just one example of the need for pre-mortems and a smarter approach.

Here are 7 simple steps to a successful pre-mortem.

1. Select a project

Identify an upcoming project that is well defined but not set in stone; or identify a piece of your work or strategy that is a burning issue — for WASH, it might be hygiene behavior change, or slippage of open defecation free status as examples. You don’t need to commit to changing everything, just to being a learning organization.

2. Get the right people (and evidence) in the room

Set aside at least two hours of uninterrupted time and invite everyone with a significant role to the pre-mortem, including donors and beneficiaries if possible. Get input from as many people with as many diverse views as possible, so you’re not relying on group think. Ideally, the pre-mortem would be a face-to-face meeting, but video links are the next best solution. One person should do nothing but take notes.

Because of the nature of many international development projects, it is difficult to get all the knowledgeable people in the room. So we recommend a twist to this proven technique: Get the voices of experts in the room by compiling lessons learned from relevant studies, evaluations of your organization’s projects and others, and user, or beneficiary, surveys — we can help with this part!

3. Set the right frame of mind

If the group you have assembled is not used to working together, or not used to having the opportunity to be creative, you might want to try an exercise to get people out of their comfort zones. For example, depending on how big the group is, before the meeting, ask people to prepare something creative to represent the focus of their organization or department. This can be a drawing, skit, song, a Lego structure, anything. This should be fun — encourage laughter and silliness. Give each person or pair 2 minutes at the beginning of the gathering to present their creation to the group.

4. Set the stage

Brief the team on the plan, explaining that we’re doing this so the organization — and the beneficiaries — will be better off. Then the leader/facilitator says something like, “We’re looking in a crystal ball, and 80 percent of the water points built during this project have failed,” or “One year after completion, very few people are using the toilets built during this project.” Get creative — come with a slide show of the failed project, show some statistics on failure.

5. Brainstorm doom

For 15 minutes, those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure — especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic. At this stage, no problem is off-limits, and everyone at the meeting should feel completely uninhibited about tossing out things that sound ridiculous. Don’t forget items related to funding — e.g., not enough, focused on wrong things. The only thing not allowed during this phase is proposed solutions.

6. Prioritize problems

Next the leader asks each team member, starting with the project manager, to read one reason from his or her list; everyone states a different reason until all have been recorded. Then as a team, narrow down the list to 10 or fewer problems.

Some criteria for the narrowing-down:

• Focus on the showstoppers. If it occurs, will it severely impact the project? If the answer is no, it doesn’t belong on your pre-mortem list.

• Pick the problems likely to happen. Try to home in on the “elephant in the room” problems that came up — the ones everyone was secretly worried about but never brought up until now.

• Compare these issues to those previously identified in post-mortem evaluations of similar projects within your organization, or outside — Improve International has compiled a number of these. Or access tools such as the WASHCost Calculator to inform prioritization.

• Discard problems you have no control over and focus on problems you can actually fix.

7. Co-create solutions

Go through each problem in your priority list and either:

• Create a proactive solution for it (best for problems facing you now).
• Define a backup plan (best for problems that could happen, but haven’t yet).
• With something really complex, focus on one big thing to fix.
• Most importantly, no solution is complete until action items are created and assigned to team members to complete.

As scientist Gary Klein noted in the Harvard Business Review, while many companies engage in risk analysis, the pre-mortem does more than that; it “reduces the kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed by people who are overinvested in a project.” This exercise validates experience and intelligence of other team members and “sensitizes the team to pick up early signs of trouble once the project gets underway. In the end, a pre-mortem, Klein succinctly concludes, “may be the best way to circumvent any need for a for a painful post-mortem.”

About the author

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    Susan Davis

    Susan Davis, MPH, is the founder and executive director of Improve International. An expert in sustainable global health and development, she has served on the boards of the Millennium Water Alliance, WASH Advocates, DRI’s Circuit Rider promotion efforts, and the Water Point Data Exchange. She previously worked with Water For People, CARE USA, and WaterPartners International (now water.org).