Management Consulting for Nonprofits and Social Enterprises

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Positive Pre-Mortems

Published By

Rick Nason, Ph.D.

Published By

Omer Livvarcin, Ph.D.

This week an ever so slight hint of discussion about preparing for coming out of this pandemic has started. Probably still a bit early for the discussion to begin in earnest, but everyone is probably tired of crisis management and concerned about what the new reality might be.

A pre-mortem is a powerful risk management technique for not only risk planning but planning in general. A pre-mortem is when one looks into the future and assumes that a specific scenario or outcome has occurred. Then working backwards from the future, then construct how such a potential scenario might have occurred. A pre-mortem essentially flips scenario planning on its head and instead of building the future going forward, reconstructs it from working backwards. It might seem silly, but it is a risk management exercise that can yield unique and surprising insights that allow for much better planning and preparation.

Many risk consultants treat a pre-mortem as an exercising in working with negative outcomes; thus, the name pre-mortem suggesting the assumption that the organization is going to suffer a catastrophic outcome. While it is useful to look at negative potential outcomes, we also believe that it is equally important to look at positive potential outcomes, and thus our suggestion for a positive pre-mortem. A positive pre-mortem is where you assume a set of positive outcomes or scenarios have occurred, and then work backwards to reconstruct the events that must unfold for such a scenario to come about.

At times such as these it is natural to be pessimistic. However, it is well known that attitude can dramatically affect the ability of one to effectively perform. We believe the same is true for organizations. As we pointed out in our book Risk Management for Nonprofits, effective risk management involves managing both the upside and downside uncertainty of outcomes. A positive pre-mortem helps one to manage for not only the thunderclouds, but also for the silver lining that each cloud brings with it.

Rick Nason and Omer Livvarcin are co-authors of the book “Risk Management for Non-Profits”, published by Business Experts Press. Omer is also the founder of and Vectors Group. Rick is also author of “It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Management”, published by University of Toronto Press.

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