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#PodLove: #1 Freakonomics

Freakonomics Radio: one of the the best podcasts out there

This is part of my series on podcasts. Check out the master list here.

I read the Freakonomics book a few years before learning they had a podcast. The story that most stuck with me from the book is the argument that legalising abortion leads to a significant drop in crime. There were plenty of other left-field sections in the book and it’s well worth a read. Before you get a copy from the library, you can listen to their newer work online through Freakonomics Radio.  They’re in the middle of ‘Self-improvement Month’ so now’s as good a time as any to start seeing the world a little differently.

Why should you listen to Freakonomics Radio?

In my opinion one of the best Freakonomics episodes is #169 Failure is Your Friend, in which Stephen Dubner, Steven Levitt and Gary Klein talk about the ‘pre-mortem’. I hadn’t realised how long this idea had existed until I started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow (highly, highly recommended).

The pre-mortem

It’s fashionable to talk about failure and learning from the mistakes you’ve made. What with everyone on a mindfulness trip, failure is just another aspect of self-reflection and personal growth. Next time you start a new project you’ll be filled with optimism – this one is going to go really well: you’ve learnt from past mistakes; everyone on the team is excited; the budget is perfect; the resources are all there.

What could go wrong?

Plenty of things, and in actual fact you’re already aware of a lot of them. Between you your team probably knows the weak points and risk factors, but a combination of group think, blind optimism, saving face and more all contribute towards sweeping problems under the carpet.

How do I do it?

As Klein and Dubner describe in the podcast:

KLEIN: Now, for the next two minutes—and I’m gonna time this—for the next two minutes, I want each of you to write down all the reasons why this project has failed. We know it failed. No doubts. Write down why it failed. I keep a strict clock because we don’t want to chew up too much time on this. but I see that everybody is writing and I say there’s 20 seconds to go, and they’re writing faster because they’re trying to get everything in. And now, five seconds. And then okay, finish the sentence and pencils up.

DUBNER: Now Klein would go around the room and ask for one item from each person’s list. They compile a catalog of all the ways the project might fail. Klein calls this “prospective hindsight.” What does it accomplish?

KLEIN: It really reduces over-confidence. And people are usually way too confident at the beginning of a project. So the pre-mortem tempers that over-confidence.

DUBNER: Now Klein would ask everyone in the room to think up one thing they could do to help the project.

KLEIN: And then we’d go around the room to see what people are planning to do that they hadn’t thought of before to try to make it more successful.

DUBNER: So you put a happy ending on a potentially sad story?

KLEIN: Exactly. That’s what we’re trying to do. Without sugarcoating the problems that face us.

Next time you start a project, give the pre-mortem a try. That’s what I’m going to do. And in the meantime make sure you subscribe to Freakonomics Radio and check out the rest of my recommended podcasts.