Overcoming group overconfidence is hard, but in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman offers one partial remedy: a premortem. As opposed to a postmortem, and analysis of why a project failed, a premortem looks at why a program might fail before it has started.
Group communication is difficult. When the leader of a group is enthusiastic about an idea, it is hard to disagree with them. If you are a junior member of a team, it can be uncomfortable, and potentially even disadvantageous for you and your career to doubt the ideas that a senior leader is excited about. If you have concerns, it is not likely that you will bring them up, especially in a group meeting with other seemingly enthusiastic team members surrounding you.
Beyond the silencing of a member who has concerns but doesn’t want to speak up is another problem that contributes to overconfidence among teams: groupthink. Particularly among groups that lack diversity, groupthink can crush the planning stage of a project. When everyone has similar backgrounds, similar experiences, and similar styles of thinking, it is unlikely that anyone within the group will have a viewpoint or opinion that is significantly different than the prevailing wisdom of the rest. What seems like a good idea or the correct decision to one person probably feels like the correct idea or decision to everyone else – there is literally no one in the room who has any doubts or alternative perspectives.
Premortems help get beyond groupthink and the fear of speaking up against a powerful and enthusiastic leader. The idea is to brainstorm all the possible ways that a project might fail. It includes an element of creativity by asking everyone to imagine the project is finally finished, either successfully but well over budget, way late, after a very turbulent series of events, or the project was a complete failure and never reached its intended end point. People have to describe the issues that came up and why the project did not reach the rosy outcome everyone initially pictured. Imaging that these failures had taken place in real life gets people to step beyond groupthink and encourages highlighting roadblocks that particularly enthusiastic members overlook.
Because premortems are hypothetical, it gives people a chance to speak up about failure points and weaknesses in plans and ideas without appearing to criticize the person the idea came from. It creates a safe space for imagining barriers and obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve success. It reduces groupthink by encouraging a creative flow of ideas of failure points. As Kahneman writes, “The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts. Furthermore, it encourages even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats that they had not considered earlier.”
Overcoming group overconfidence is possible, but it needs the right systems and structures to happen. Groupthink and fear are likely to prevent people from bringing up real doubts and threats, but a premortem allows those concerns to be aired and seriously considered. It helps get people to look beyond the picture of success they intuitively connect with, and it helps prevent enthusiastic supporters from getting carried away with their overconfidence.