Using the Premortem to Drive HR Agility

When the unexpected strikes, our brains often start working like we’re being chased by a wild animal. Levels of hormones—specifically, adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol—increase, resulting in a range of reactions including increased heartrate, elevated blood pressure and tunnel-vision like focus on the threat. 

This is great if you actually are being chased by a lion. The threat is singular, and your immediate actions are likely singular as well (for example, run fast to shelter). 

But it’s not so great if you’re facing a complex problem in your organization. 

That’s because solving complex problems often requires the ability to consider many sources of information and to sort through the ambiguity of the situation with other people. It requires a calm mindset and critical thinking to deliver the best solution, not just the first one that comes to mind. 

HR leaders can often find themselves in tough, stressful circumstances. These situations demand agility, the ability to sense and respond quickly.

Consider, for example:

  • A key executive suddenly announces she is quitting.
  •  A recently sacked employee files a lawsuit for wrongful termination.
  • The CEO decides to begin massive layoffs.
  • A sudden surge in demand requires increases in labor.
  • A system breach compromises sensitive employee data.

These aren’t unlikely scenarios, and many HR leaders deal with them frequently. But are these situations—and other unexpected events—always handled with the utmost agility? Certainly, there’s room for improvement. 

One way in which HR leaders can become more agile is by taking deliberate steps to anticipate change, taking the time to focus on what could go wrong and how prepared they are to deal with those specific issues. 

The premortem is a specific tool that can help. 

Most of us are familiar with the postmortem, in which a group discusses what went well and what didn’t go well after an event. The premortem, though, takes the idea of thinking about what could have gone wrong—in advance. 

The psychologist Gary Klein has written about the premortem within the context of projects, highlighting how premortems can help leaders improve project planning.   (I also highly recommend his book Sources of Power.) 

Within the HR world, a premortem might look something like this:

  1. An HR director gathers his team and discusses the plan to address a potential issue, such as the departure of a key executive. He then asks them to imagine that it’s six months (or some other relevant time reference) in the future and the plan has been implemented. 
  2. The HR director then asks everyone to imagine that the plan didn’t work well at all. Each person then takes a few minutes to write down the reasons they think the plan failed. 
  3. Each person shares his or her reasons until all of them are documented. 
  4. Then, the HR director uses that information to strengthen the plan. 

This is just one simple example. But the reason a premortem can help drive HR agility is that it can allow the team to think about problems and solutions before the unexpected strikes, before their nervous systems become awash in potentially judgment-clouding stress hormones.  It can allow the team to set in place a variety of systems that can help them perform well in a specific situation they may face.  

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University, discussed this concept more broadly, suggesting that pre-planned responses can help you stay calm in stressful circumstances. 

His TED talk on the topic is below. 

HR agility can come in many shapes and sizes, but the premortem is one tool that HR leaders could begin using to create different patterns of thinking for themselves and their teams. It can be a helpful part of anticipating change, allowing them to be more responsive to disruption when it occurs. 

Because for so many of the unexpected situations that can unfold, it’s not a matter of if they will occur.

It’s a matter of when.