The Premortem: Planning for Failure
This article is a rant about open-plan offices. But it’s also about the importance of analyzing how new initiatives might backfire.
I know that if I’d ever had to work in an open-plan office, I’d have gone nuts. I’m all for collaboration. But I’m not for hearing everything my coworkers say to each other, and even less for having them hear everything I say. And a workplace in which everyone is wearing headphones so that no one hears anything anyone else says is not exactly conductive to collaboration.
I suppose it was reasonable, early on, to assume that open-plan workspaces would generate camaraderie, enhance teamwork, and improve the flow of information. But why was it not also reasonable to assume that very camaraderie would contribute to interruptions, distraction, noise, and everyone witnessing everyone else’s conversations?
Not even the most seemingly well-thought-out strategy is without the potential for failure. Therefore, it seems wise to ask some questions at the outset of a major project or undertaking, such as:
- What bad assumptions have we made?
- What assumptions should we have made that we didn’t?
- What have we not considered about the project and its consequences?
- Even if everything goes as planned, how might this effort backfire?
One way to explore these questions is via a “premortem.” Whereas a postmortem, or retrospective, is done after a project is completed, a premortem is done before the project starts as a way to imagine that the project failed and to explore what went wrong.
When conducting a premortem, you and all the project participants and stakeholders try to list every possible thing that can go wrong on the project, no matter how improbable. Then you identify the items on the list that are the most likely to occur or that pose the greatest threat to the project, and you explore solutions. If you can’t devise solutions to the most consequential problems—such as being driven nuts by nearby chatter—perhaps it’s better not to proceed.
I don’t know if the people who came up with the open-plan office conducted a premortem. But research now demonstrates that when employees can't concentrate, they tend to communicate less, not more. When employees are constantly interrupted and can't concentrate, their desire to collaborate doesn’t increase, it decreases. When cognitive processes are interrupted, the result is inefficiency and an increase in mistakes.
It’s clear now that the open-plan office is not a solution to the problem it was intended to solve. The next time you’re trying to solve a problem, first try to think of all the ways you may go wrong.