Psychologist Gary Klein has invented a powerful exercise called “the pre mortem.” We all know about post mortems. These are autopsies where we try to understand why someone – or some project – has died. We study everything that went wrong.

Of course, that’s not very helpful within the context of an initiative to make change in your community! People don’t want to wait until a business has collapsed, or a project has failed. It’s better to catch the mistakes before they occur!

The pre mortem asks you to imagine that it’s a year from now and your project has completely fallen apart. What happened? Analyze all the reasons why it didn’t meet your wildly optimistic expectations. Explain what went wrong.

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  1. You can have the students do this on their own. If they are in a team, working together on a social enterprise or community initiative, they can do it together. The basic principle is simple. Just ask them to imagine all the reasons why they might fail in the next year. What are all the worst-case scenarios? What are all the roadblocks and adversities and challenges and obstacles that they could face? What could go wrong?
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This is a powerful game. It helps people identify the potential problems long before they occur. Then they can plan ahead for how to deal with each one.

Of course, this “pre mortem” game only helps people identify the obstacles that they can see themselves. Unfortunately we often have a blind spot. We need the perspective of other people who can see dangers of which we are completely unaware. This leads into the next exercise:


Gary Klein