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Why Airbnb Encourages Employees to Predict Its Own Downfall

And how "pre-mortems" serve as an exercise in clarity.

Of all the disruption stories of the digital age, Airbnb's foray into leveraging the sharing economy to become a major player in hospitality ranks pretty high on the "Whoa, cool!" list.

That's one reason it encourages its employees to think about how it stands to be disrupted next.

As explained in a recent Fast Company article exploring the company and its future plans:

Inside (Airbnb's design lab) there's a Post-it Note with a small doodle of a sharp knife, along with the words airbnb killer. An employee jotted that down on the sticky and glued it to a large black poster board that details the next-­generation prototype of the service--one that (CEO Brian) Chesky says would "disrupt Airbnb" if a competitor were to introduce it today. He wants his team to beat rivals to innovations.

As an innovation strategy, this makes plenty of sense. But by sourcing these harbingers from employees, you can make the argument that Airbnb is also getting important exercises in organizational alignment and teamwork.

Pre-Mortems and Pre-Celebrations

The idea of forecasting your own disruption is similar to the concept of a "pre-mortem," in which teams meet before a project and imagine they're a few months or a year in the future and that the project has failed.

Teams roleplay, talking about what went wrong to doom the project, and where things could have been done differently.

The process helps to identify potential hiccups that might not be obvious at the outset of a project. Doing it as a group ensures that the entire team is aware of those pitfalls-that-may-be, and and encourages the kind of collaborative thinking that could turn up even more of them over the course of the conversation.

Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of teamwork and productivity toolmaker Asana, is a big advocate of both the pre-mortem and its less gloomy cousin, the pre-celebration. In the latter, as the name suggests, the team imagines absolute success--and talks through the crucial hypothetical points in the process where the right decisions were made.

In an interview with Inc., Rosenstein likens the processes to training for an athlete. But while they are useful for guiding projects and recognizing what they need to be done to hit objectives, they also have a clear team-building use as well.

"You realize neither (success nor failure) is pre-destined," Rosenstein says. "It's really a matter of what those in the room over the next four months do that will have an effect."

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