Let’s look at an example. Jenny had been promoted to events manager at her job. That meant she would now be hosting meetings, instead of just attending them. One of those meetings was a regularly scheduled gathering for managers from around the country—a big annual event with a prominent speaker, a dinner, workshops and so much more.
Jenny and her team took it on with enthusiasm. But the meeting was a disaster. And not because of the coronavirus: the meeting happened in December 2018. In fact, so many things went wrong that Jenny was not only dismayed and disheartened, she was also scared it would cost her the job.
Blame it on Blind Spots
Failures happen because we hit blind spots: dangerous judgment errors that cause us to assume things will just keep happening as they always have before, overlook warning signs or assume people will understand when they don’t. There are over a hundred mental blind spots that cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists (like myself) call cognitive biases. Any single one can cause us to make poor decisions that lead to disasters.
Jenny and her team had completely underestimated the likelihood of something truly going wrong because in the history of planning this meeting, nothing else had ever gone terribly wrong. “You’ll do fine,” coworkers told her. “This meeting always happens without a hitch.” In essence, Jenny and her team inherited this normalcy bias from the previous team who planned the meetings in the past. Years of the same meeting had never produced more than minor hiccups. So, all assumed it would be the same way this time.
The hitches piled up fast. For example, Jenny was excited to introduce a new conference app to help attendees navigate the conference. This cool new technology allowed attendees to RSVP for the event, book their place in workshops, order their preferred dinner entrees and communicate with other participants. But the app proved confusing for older managers and they either made mistakes in putting in their information or ignored it altogether.
The mistake was underestimating how different other people’s perspectives and understanding were from their own—or the false consensus effect. As a result, misunderstandings had to be cleared up, causing frustration and distress for participants.
The well-known, best-selling author Jenny booked months in advance came down with laryngitis two days before the meeting. Since Jenny didn’t arrange backup speaker options and had so little time left close to the event, her team invited one of the senior level managers to speak—and the move was seen as lackluster since he was just seen as a coworker, not an esteemed expert.
Then there was the issue of the venue: the former planning team recommended sticking with the same venue as in past years, so they did. But this year, the conference center was woefully overbooked, with several meetings happening at once, and a harried staff late in setting up for dinner and no one to fix the AV system. Unfair or not, attendees had the impression that the whole meeting was ill-planned and complained about everything.
How to Failure-Proof an Event
Once the smoke cleared, Jenny and her team reasoned that yes, it could have been worse: no food poisoning, for instance. But Jenny was still concerned it could affect her standing at the company, and the team was demoralized. They resolved to learn from the mistakes and avoid striking out again. That led them to a strategy known as “failure-proofing,” which requires anticipating problems and creating solutions in advance. The strategy is based in neuroscience and tackles the cognitive biases that bring down your efforts. The exercise applies for in-person or online meetings. Here’s a simple Failure-Proofing exercise you can practice to help ensure an endeavor’s success:
Envision the disaster. To avoid disaster, accept that it could happen. You and your team need to imagine what that disaster would look like, and document everything that could go wrong.
List all the reasons that disaster happened. Next, brainstorm all the reasons that project failed. Include reasons that could be seen as rude or politically problematic—the ones we don’t talk about, but should.
Discuss, assess and find solutions. As a team, discuss all the reasons listed, then decide which should be addressed, based on an assessment of their likelihood and impact. Brainstorm how you could address these problems as they happen.
Revise the project plan. With this new knowledge in hand, integrate the ideas into your project plan.
The Clarity of Hindsight
Jenny and her team conducted the whole exercise in retrospect. They saw that they should have made sure the app was easy to navigate for anyone and duplicated the schedule on paper instead of just having it online. They realized there’s always a chance the star of the show gets sick—that’s why there are understudies. They took another look at the schedule of events at the venue happening during their meeting time, and saw it was already set to be packed months in advance. Knowing that, they could have changed locations.
Then they shared their findings. The action ensured that Jenny came out looking like an MVP instead of a questionable new manager. She’d taken the team through the exercise and demonstrated she was willing to look back and reassess, and the whole team made it clear they had learned from the experience.
Then they conducted the final part of the exercise, which is to frame the event in the positive. They sat down and imagined the meeting was a resounding success, and looked at all the reasons why, using that information to start planning the next meeting. Defeating cognitive biases such as the normalcy bias and the false consensus effect is key to undoing disasters before they happen. And it’s a great skill to learn ahead of time, rather than when it’s too late.
And no, Jenny didn’t lose her job. She and her team went on to plan the next meeting, and that one—in December 2019—went off without a hitch.
Now, Jenny is planning the December 2020 meeting. She’s thinking about doing an all-virtual meeting and knows there will be many more potential problems, since it’s a completely new type of event. Fortunately, she knows she can rely on the failure-proofing technique to anticipate and address a large majority of the problems while maximizing success.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally recognized author, behavioral economist, cognitive neuroscientist and academic on a mission to instill leaders with the most effective decision-making strategies. He is the author of several books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), and has over 550 articles and 450 interviews in publications such as Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur and Fast Company. Contact him and register for his free Wise Decision Maker Course here.