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#78 - The magic of time travel in decision-making
A primer on mental time travel protocols for better decisions
Hello, friends! Welcome to issue #78 of Curiosity > Certainty 👏 I’m Satyajit and I love learning, practicing, and writing about all things decision-making.
Earlier this week, I did a workshop for the second line of leadership of a young company in the social impact space. It was fantastic to see knowledge professionals take decision-making frameworks and strategies and put them to use for their work everyday. So, do me a favor. Spread the word about this newsletter. You would be helping someone grappling with a big decision or helping a team enjoy the process of decision-making. You would certainly be helping me!
This week’s issue is a primer on the most underrated protocol in decision-making: mental time travel. Let’s go back to the future!
Taking a backfiring habit and making it fire on all cylinders
We spend between a third and a half of our waking lives living outside the present moment. Which sounds like we’ve made a habit of slipping away from what needs our attention.
What do we do when we wander off? Research shows that most of this time we’re either worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. Neither productive.
Even though the human mind has evolved to time-travel and this ability is unique to our species, this gift becomes a curse if we get stuck in the future or the past. If we don’t fully return to the present moment to take care of what is immediate, we can end up in a lot of pain without any gain.
Good decision-making habits throw this script out the window by making time travel intentional. We no longer find ourselves lost in the future or the past. Instead we venture deep into them, purposefully, looking for clues to make our lives better.
When we make a habit of mental time travel, we can find gain without pain.
What if we can imagine an ideal future, place ourselves in it, and look back at the path that got us there? Positive visualization, but by placing ourselves in the future and looking all the way back to the present. This approach is known as a preparade.
Seeing a clear path to our goal means nothing if we ignore the snags en route. This is where negative visualization comes in. Why just hope to avoid the worst? Let’s paint out the worst-case scenario and plan for working around it. A premortem helps us imagine the death of our cherished plans so that we can beat it.
And let’s not stop at time travel, or temporal distancing. We can do a bit of person-travel as well. Aka perspective distancing. So that we can get that much coveted outside-in view that we’re willing to pay advisors and coaches for by the hour.
Using the under-used but unique human talent of mental time travel can make you better at what you do. Hit subscribe to start the journey!
Imagining your (project’s) death
Often we do the right things but just not in the right order. Like…
have a team to solve problems but not one to prevent them
an after-action review to detect the cause of failure but nothing before to avoid failure
a postmortem to pin down the cause of death but nothing to spot what could cause death
As Gary Klein, the creator of a wonderful time-travel protocol in decision-making, says: ‘Everybody benefits from a postmortem, except for the patient, because the patient is dead.’
How do we save the patient? By doing a pre-mortem.
Klein, the premortem inventor, has a four-step process for it.
1️⃣ Project leader informs the team that it’s six months past and the project has failed spectacularly.
2️⃣ Everyone separately and simultaneously writes down why they thought the project failed.
3️⃣ The leader then asks each member to read the top cause from their list and curates all mutually exclusive causes.
4️⃣ After the meeting, the leader reviews the list and beefs up the project plan to counter all problems.
We all anticipate and prepare for things that could go wrong during a pitch, a presentation, or a performance. This is called mental contrasting. Premortems unlock the power of such thinking by adding time travel to the process. They separate the present us from the future us.
There are a few tricks to doing a premortem well.
✔The first is to really sell the scenario up front: ‘...the crystal ball is showing failure. Now, the crystal ball isn’t showing us why it failed. It’s just showing us that it has failed. That much is certain. And the crystal ball is infallible. It never lies.’
For my first premortem, I was embarrassed about selling the failure scenario to my CEO and Chairman. I ended up doing a half-assed job.
✔Second is to use a timer. Give participants just 2 minutes to list down all their reasons. Boxing the time makes them focus on the important failure points. That’s what you want to know.
✔Do a premortem before project execution, not before project planning. You need a plan to find holes in.
From among those I follow, I’ve used Shreyas Doshi’s spin on the premortem. He asks his teams to tag problems to their size (‘tigers, paper tigers, and elephants’). This has the added benefit of making the problems high-recall and fun to solve. You want your teams to want to do this again and again.
In popular culture, negative thinking has a bad rep. Annie Duke tells us why: We confuse route planning with destination planning. She suggests we switch from the fatalistic mode of ‘I’m going to fail’ to a preparatory mode of ‘If I were to fail, what are the ways that could happen?’
How do you get your teams to snap out of groupthink? How do you have their contrarian views shine? How do you get them to think of the worst and make that work for you? I would love to know!
How do you get your teams to snap out of groupthink? How do you have their contrarian views shine? How do you get them to think of the worst and make that work for you? Share your thoughts!
Are you ready for your parade?
Because positive thinking comes naturally to most of us, we may sell ourselves the story that we’re ready for success.
💭As a creator, you may dream about a post going viral…
💭As a product manager, you may dream about early adoption taking off…
💭As a business owner, you may dream about that first group of delighted customers…
Such positive thinking is destination dreaming–not route planning. If premortems help you avoid problems along the way, 𝐩𝐫𝐞𝐩𝐚𝐫𝐚𝐝𝐞𝐬 get you to make the most of an opportunity.
In the late 1970s, Minnetonka introduced liquid soap in the crowded US bar-soap market ruled by Unilever, P&G, and J&J. Dispensed from a then-novel plastic hand pump, Softsoap showed potential in local pilots with small distributors.
Minnetonka leadership recognized the opportunity–get a headstart on the big players in a new segment–and what they needed to do to exploit it–block market entry for others by blocking the supply chain.
They gobbled up the supply of plastic pumps and kept the biggies at bay for a couple of years, by which time they had come to dominate the market. What Minnetonka did can be broken down into a few steps for you and your team to follow:
1️⃣Imagine it’s a few months past (enough time for you to have achieved your goal) and your project has been a wild success.
2️⃣Looking back, write down what you did to reach that point of success. In a team, everyone does this separately.
3️⃣ You ask each member to read the top cause from their list and curate all mutually exclusive causes.
4️⃣ Finally, you plan steps to profit from the now-recognized opportunity.
👉As a creator, you may want to build a portfolio of material to cash in on virality…
👉As a product manager, you may want to keep technical debt in check to handle rapid user growth…
👉As a business owner, you may want to invest in your ability to expand quickly…
Imagining our ideal future is the easiest gig if all we’re doing is daydreaming about the finish line. But not asking what got us there leaves our success to chance.
It is not because what happens along the way is always unforeseen. It is because we haven’t thought about how to handle a good situation, or maybe deep down we don’t believe it could happen to us.
Success needs preparation–that is the idea behind the time-travel technique of preparades.
How do you prepare for success?
Bookending positive and negative
In decision-making, traveling across time from the present moment to multiple futures, both negative and negative, bookends the worst and the best that may happen. Imagining how you got there exhumes what you may have done to have met with abject failure or roaring success, and shows you how to avoid the abyss and shoot for the stars.
How does this happen?
In the present moment you’ve both foresight and hindsight. Foresight sheds some light ahead but that’s not nearly enough to see the path clearly. It means you’re always guessing about your next step. You can’t know for sure until your foot is on the ground and sometimes that’s too late.
Hindsight has the opposite problem. It shows you things with total clarity but all of it has already happened. You cannot change a thing.
Stepping away from the present moment unlocks your thinking from the limitations of currency. It gives you prospective hindsight. It helps you look at the future as if it were the past. That brings clarity. You can now see your path forward by having imagined it backward. Sounds like magic? It almost is. Mental time travel is a signature talent of our species. The problem is we don’t practice it enough.
When you do your time travel, do not just list what you did to get to the future. Also list those things outside your control that could have got you there. Life can be random. Luck can both bring you glory or drive you to ruin. Before that happens, ask: What can I do to improve my chances of catching that lucky break? What’s my plan if we get rotten luck?
And once you’ve done your premortem and your preparade, and you know where you are in the bookended spectrum between success and failure, what you want to do is ask yourself and your group: Do we want to change our minds? Can we do something to get closer to the positive end of the spectrum?
Thank you for reading! If you try any of the shared strategies, let me know your experience. Comments are open, so is my inbox (email@example.com). Stay well!