June 6, 1944 was one of the days that changed history as the allies launched the greatest invasion in history. But it is worth remembering a small, seemingly insignificant event that happened on June 5th, seventy years ago today. General Eisenhower, the man in charge of the invasion, sat alone at his desk and wrote this message:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
On the day before one of the most important successes of the war, Ike sat down and imagined the worst possible disaster.
There is a safety management lesson here. One reason that industrial disasters happen is that we fail to imagine what could go wrong. One of the major culprits is what a NASA disaster report called the “arrogance of optimism” and psychologists call confirmation bias. As we get deeper in to the planning of a project or an operation, we get invested in its success and can’t imagine that there could be problems. As the author George Orwell put it, “People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes.”
When disaster strikes, is it because no one could anticipate the cause or because we had our blinders on?
In Ike’s case, while he could be the ultimate cheerleader and spent the days before D-Day building up the confidence of his troops, he also had a clear-eyed view of what could go wrong.
How can companies be like Ike when it comes to launching new initiatives and also identifying hazards? Psychologist Gary Klein, focuses on decision-making and he suggests companies do what he calls a “Premortem.” Once a decision is made, but before it is finalized, he says executives should do the following:
“Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.”
That is what General Eisenhower did 70 years ago today. Maybe we all should try it for our D-Day decisions.