Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of eleven books, the host and co-creator of the Emmy-winning PBS/BBC series How We Got To Now, and the host of the American Innovations podcast. When his latest book, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, became an official selection of the Next Big Idea Club, Steven stopped by to offer an exclusive set of insights, one of which we’re proud to share below.
One of the things that I learned in researching and writing Farsighted is that the predictive phase of a decision is always, on some level, a narrative art. The future is unpredictable, particularly when we’re dealing with complex choices. Because we can never fully predict the outcomes of our choices, we have to tell stories—crucially, multiple stories—to imagine different outcomes.
This is best exemplified by a technique that was developed in the 1970s called scenario planning. The idea is that you’re confronting a choice, and you’re trying to imagine what the long-term consequences of that choice are going to be. In building a scenario plan, you actually tell multiple stories, so that you don’t get locked in on one way of interpreting the future.
One of the techniques that one of the early pioneers of scenario planning, Peter Schwartz, talks about is to tell three stories about the choice you’re confronting: One story where things get better, one story where things get worse, and one story where things get weird. I’ve always loved that last option, because it forces your mind to imagine a set of outcomes the are not coming to you initially. You have to explore the possibility space, the full-spectrum map of the future in order to come up with that weird outcome.
One of my favorite modifications of the scenario planning technique was developed by a psychologist named Gary Klein, and his technique is called a premortem. Now a premortem, as you might imagine, is the opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem is when a patient is dead, and it’s the job of the forensic scientist to figure out what killed the patient. In a premortem, the patient is going to die, and it’s your job to tell a story about what will ultimately kill the patient.
So in decision theory terms, a premortem is the exercise you run right when you’re about to pull the trigger on an important choice. You’ve decided on the path ahead, so you sit the team down, and you tell a story. The story is, in five years, this decision turns out to be catastrophically bad—it’s a complete failure. Tell the story of how that failure happened.
And what Klein found is that when you force people to get into that storytelling mode, when you force them to build a narrative account of a future failure, they’re much more creative in seeing potential problems and anticipating ways in which the choice could end up being a disaster.
[On the other hand, you could] sit them down and say, “We’re thinking about making this choice. Do you see any flaws with it?” When you ask them that question, they tend to suffer from the usual problems of confirmation bias and overconfidence that people often have. And they say, “No, it looks great. This is a great choice—let’s press play.”
But when you run the premortem, they end up seeing flaws that they wouldn’t have otherwise perceived, precisely through that narrative exercise of imagining a catastrophic future.
So the next time you’ve reached the point where you’re convinced [about] the choice that you should make, gather your team or family around, and force yourself to run through a premortem. By telling the story of how the decision ends up going wrong, you’re much more likely to have it end up going right.