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Premortem or Postmortem in times of COVID-19?

Perspective from a School Leader in Colombia

By Juan David López


March 12th, 2020 was the last day we had students on our campus. Just four days later, we transitioned to distance learning, without knowing we would end the school year working and studying remotely. Those four days of preparation before opening the virtual doors of our school were probably the most challenging, frenetic, and exhausting days of our careers as school administrators. During that period of implementation of distance learning, we did the typical stop/think/plan periodically to readjust the course of our journey and also to celebrate our successes.


In August, at the beginning of a new school year faced with the continuation of distance learning, we started a new planning process. As usual, we analyzed the previous experiences from March through June in order to learn from them, and highlighted and celebrated our accomplishments from our previous trimester, carrying out an “autopsy” on our March-August-virtual-learning experience. However, this time, as we looked forward to the new semester, we used a different approach. Instead of relying only on a ‘postmortem’, we decided to implement a ‘premortem’ of our learning model in high school. This may sound creepy or spooky, particularly in times of a pandemic, but the change of approach also changed the mindset of our leadership team, providing new insight into the process of planning, evaluating, and analyzing our distance learning model, and the preparation for a new hybrid program.


1. What is a premortem?

Gary Klein, famous for pioneering in the field of naturalistic decision making, is the author of the premortem protocol applied to project management (2017). A premortem is always performed during the planning phase of a project. In a premortem, all team members assume that the project has failed and identify the reasons for its demise. The difference between this method and the typical analysis of hypothetical risks at the beginning of a project is that in a premortem, everybody must assume that the “patient” has died; or in other words, assume that the project failed.


2. How does it work?

In August during one of our first high school leadership team meetings, I presented the following agenda item: “I have bad news for you. It is December 2020, and after several months of implementation, our distance learning program failed miserably in high school”. Now we need to think about this: “What went wrong?”, or in our premortem protocol language: “What killed our patient?” Some team members were shocked when I presented this idea. We usually begin the school year on a very positive note, rejuvenated by the summer rest, so the idea of contemplating failure andthinking about “pre-autopsies” was at first received with skepticism by some and with curiosity by others. 

Instead of starting an open conversation about all of the potential causes of the ‘death’ of our distance-learning ‘patient’, we implemented a 3-step process that spanned three separate meetings. Here is what we used:

STEP 1: individual “brainwriting” (Paulus et al., 2015). Write down your ideas about these questions: “What went wrong with our distance learning program? What killed our patient?” As you are thinking about your ideas, remember our norms:

● Be brave, be bold (wild ideas ok)

● Go for quantity of ideas over the quality of ideas.

STEP 2: Group share-out

● Group Share: each person reads all of their ideas.

● Feedback: group members can comment, but can only build, not burn.

STEP 3: Action Plan. In a spreadsheet or any software you use for project management, do the following.

1. Combine and organize all ‘causes of death’ or ‘things that went wrong’ in one column. Assign one category to each idea identified above, and sort all ideas by categories.

2. Following another protocol of your choice, identify potential solutions to each one of the ‘causes of death’

3. Insert three new columns: ‘status of action’, ‘who, when’, ‘resources’. 

Congratulations! You have an action plan.

Extra bonus: Color-code each action step.

Green (We already did this! Let’s celebrate!),

Yellow (we can implement this very easily, or this is already in progress),

Red (this is important, but we haven’t even started to think about it yet).

Here is the example of our initial action plan (it’s not polished because it’s a working document, but it will give you a clear idea of what this process looks like)


3. Why is it Important? How was our experience?

Performing a premortem was important to our team for many reasons, but here are the main three:

It is ok to be realistic! You’re probably not pessimistic after all. Protocols are safety nets that allow us not only to be more productive but also to feel safe. When we anticipated all the potential causes of the failure of our distance learning program, everybody had a chance to express their fears and reservations. The first time we used this method, a team of 6 people, in only 5 minutes, identified 78 reasons that explained why our distance learning program had failed. The potential causes went from logistical failures to accusations in the realm of child protection. Many people anticipate that things are going to go wrong when presented with something new. Sometimes people are vocal about their concerns and fears, but these voices are not always heard by the leaders. Quite frequently, these voices become toxic and negatively affect school climate. Performing a premortem unleashes all of those fears and turns them into something productive. 

A renovated mentality for difficult times. It has become a common ground to hear from leaders: “We see failure and mistakes as opportunities for growth”; however, the organizational culture does not always “walk that talk”, or allow people to experiment with wild ideas. The premortem analysis allowed us to identify mistakes we have made in the past and turn them into real opportunities for success and growth. As leaders, sometimes we dismiss pessimistic thoughts or fatalistic thinking, but with an appropriate protocol, we not only transform the negative into positive, but also ease everybody’s minds by allowing them to express how they truly feel in the face of uncertainty, without fear of being judged.

Many quick wins and one big one. As we mentioned early, we identified over 70 causes of the failure of our distance learning program. After combining all of the ideas, we ended up with 40 action steps. This seemed like a lot to begin with, but after we identified the things that we had already done, or the things that were almost done (green category), we realized that we had already accomplished more than 50% of those actions. That was our first big celebration! Lots of small wins became an incentive to tackle our new challenge. 

What we now call our “Premortem Action Plan” has become an ongoing project that guides our distance learning journey in the high school. The big win is that we are better at anticipating the potential problems and failures of our program and are now using the same method to tackle the new challenge ahead: implementing a sustainable hybrid system for our students.


If you have any questions, comments or would like to share your hybrid or distance learning plans, please reach out to me at jdlopez@columbus.edu.co

Bio:

Juan David López Evans is the High School Principal at The Columbus School, in Medellin (Colombia). He has been with the school since 2003. He has served as a Social Studies teacher, Virtual Instructor at VHS (Virtual High School), Middle School Principal, Middle School Vice-Principal, Dean of Students. He has served as a team member in several Cognia accreditation visits in the region. Mr. López holds a BA in Philosophy and Literature and a second BA in Theology, a master’s degree in Multidisciplinary Studies from SUNY, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Bath, United Kingdom.   


REFERENCES

Greenfield, R. (2014). Brainstorming doesn’t work; try this technique instead. Retrieved from.https://www.fastcompany.com/3033567/brainstorming-doesnt-work-try-this-technique-instead

Klein, G. (2007). Performing a project premortem. Harvard business review, 85(9), 18-19.

Paulus, P. B., Korde, R. M., Dickson, J. J., Carmeli, A., & Cohen-Meitar, R. (2015). Asynchronous brainstorming in an industrial setting: Exploratory studies. Human factors, 57(6), 1076-1094.

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