What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

“What could possibly go wrong?” The phrase is rarely deployed without irony, and for good reason; we are all familiar with Murphy and his law. When we ask the question literally, we plan and innovate. “What could possibly go wrong?” has given us seat belts and parachutes. It has given us lifeguards and extra sets of keys hidden beneath conspicuous porch-side rocks.

It’s when we ask the question wryly and move on that the problems often begin. Dwelling on negativity and danger at the outset of an endeavor can make one seem like a real downer. Seeming like a downer often makes us less likely to voice legitimate concerns. What’s more, we’ve all been convinced of the power of positive thinking to a great degree. That’s good; it’s a powerful tool. But in the midst of envisioning success, we sometimes forget the virtues of the alternative.

Enter the premortem.

A postmortem is a procedure that the medical community performs to determine the cause of death. The term “postmortem” has long been used by project managers to signify a process of retrospective analysis. As Gary Klein, a scientist at Applied Research Associates and author of many books on decision-making, explains, a postmortem is useful to everyone except the deceased. (Much as examining the successes and failures of your school year at the end is beneficial for everyone—except the class you just had.)

This is why Klein is an advocate of the premortem. While it’s impossible to see every snag and obstacle that will arise, we often see more problems in advance than we admit—even to ourselves.

Klein’s company walks project teams and individuals through the thought experiment of analyzing a hypothetical future, in which their project has failed project. The focus on failure is not for the sake of dourness—it’s a means of thinking systematically about the weak spots in a plan or project while there’s still time to act.

Whether as a staff, or just by yourself, an honest and thorough premortem can bring the pitfalls of a school year into greater relief. Interview your future self, and don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions.

Did Future You tell you that the tension between Mike and Cory erupted into a confrontation, just like you feared? Is Future You disappointed that she didn’t do that Living Through History project because she just couldn’t find time? Did Future You wish she had chaperoned a field trip, or even gone to a staff picnic, instead of watching Netflix with a bowl of ice cream instead?

You have unique access to knowledge regarding your greatest personal challenges in a given school year. Some of them may be educational, some social, some financial. By allowing yourself the freedom to speak up about what could possibly go wrong, you may be able to ambush your fears.

The strength of the premortem is really evidenced in a collective setting. Social pressure often keeps us from voicing apprehensions. We want to be agreeable and positive. As teachers, we’re asked to do a lot with a little, and being “defeatist” is a serious social offense. Having a staff premortem creates a safe space for voicing concerns and addressing problems. When the entire purpose of the exercise is to outsmart your obstacles, people will open up and offer valuable insight that may otherwise have been suppressed.

Tips for a successful staff premortem:

1. Stress the main idea: looking at prospective problems early is smart. It’s not “being negative.”

2. Encourage people to share their thoughts, since that’s the whole point.

3. Encourage people to bring up concerns later on as well; everyone thinks of something they wish they’d said. Don’t make the end of the exercise a stone door.

4. Kick off the meeting by explaining the concept, then stating that your endeavors have failed completely. Then ask people to explain why, and keep a list.

If you conduct a premortem properly, it can be as fun as it is painful. (Just like any exercise.) Your fellows staffers will get to show off their insights, and you’ll have a collective sense of preparation.

An ounce of prevention still commands a favorable exchange rate, and the initial investment is free. It simply means asking, boldly and honestly—What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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