Marketing Risk Minimization Through Project “Premortems”

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Too many companies don’t look before they leap when it comes to marketing.

Typically, a marketing concept arises within an organization. After the marketing idea is discussed internally and greeted with enthusiasm, groupthink often takes root and the marketing project is given the go ahead.

As the story unfolds, time, effort and corporate treasure are expended to implement the new marketing strategy and tactics. With surprising frequency, the marketing initiative fails. Few lessons are learned and the cycle continues.

It’s no wonder that there’s such high turnover with Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs)! Across a wide range of industries, return on investment for marketing is much lower than it can and should be.

The underlying problem is a human bias to be overly optimistic and overconfident. As we talk through a marketing idea, we start to envision it being successful. Subconsciously, we start to view the marketing project’s success as being inevitable — a sure thing.

Right-brained marketers are especially prone to an overconfidence bias on marketing initiatives. But, luckily, there is a cure.

To avoid investing in a marketing program that is prone to failure, it’s a good idea to conduct a “premortem” on the project.

A postmortem, as you likely know, involves doing a medical autopsy on a human after death. In business parlance, it refers to taking an in-depth look at a project after it is completed and analyzing its positive and negative aspects.

A premortem involves brainstorming on what may kill a project, idea or hypothesis before the project is undertaken. In the marketing realm, for example, participants must visualize a scenario in the future in which the marketing project is complete and it has failed. The facilitator of a premortem asks the participants: “Given that we now are in the future and the project has failed, what were the most likely causes of the project’s failure?”

Remarkably, this exercise in mental time travel leads those who are involved to come up with a number of potential points of failure, each of which is a point of risk for the project. By doing this before the project is undertaken, a complete list of risks can be developed and steps can be taken to mitigate those risks. Alternatively, if failure risks cannot be mitigated, it may make sense to not pursue the marketing initiative at all.

Scientist Gary Klein of MacroCognition, who is widely credited with the idea, explains that “the premortem technique is a sneaky way to get people to do contrarian, devil’s advocate thinking without encountering resistance.” In other words, many people who are unlikely to speak up and challenge an idea normally may in fact do so during a premortem exercise.

The key takeaway for marketers is that it’s bad for everyone when marketers fall in love with a marketing idea and move forward with blinders on.

It’s much better to openly and objectively discuss possible points of failure before starting a marketing initiative. Conducting a premortem is a low-cost, high-ROI way to vet marketing ideas for viability in a healthy, non-confrontational manner.


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