Thinking Tools/Murder board

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A murder board, also known as a "scrub-down", is a committee of questioners set up to critically review a proposal or help someone prepare for a difficult oral examination. Questions asked by the investors (sharks) on the reality television series Shark Tank are like those asked by a murder board. Gate reviews used in a stage-gate process are also similar.

The term originated in the U.S. military, specifically from the Pentagon, but is also used in academic and government appointment contexts. To achieve the goal of terminating (murdering) unsuitable projects tough questions, candid discussion, and tough decisions are necessary. However, the process is professional and respectful to the people involved.

In highly risk-averse, technical endeavors where extreme efforts are taken to prevent mistakes (e.g. satellite operations), murder boards are used to aggressively review, without constraint or pleasantries, a situation's problem, assumptions, constraints, mitigations, and the proposed solution. The board's goal is to kill the well-prepared proposal on technical merit; holding back even the least suspicion of a problem is not tolerated. Such argumentative murder boards consist of many subject matter experts of the specific system under review and of all interfacing systems.

In project management, a murder board is a process where a committee asks questions from project representatives as part of the project selection process.

The aim of the murder board session is to try to destroy the project rather than to defend it. As a result, at the end of the session the team can be left with all the reasons why this project won’t work.[1] This identifies specific areas where the proposal needs to be improved.

The goals of a murder board are to:[2]

  • Terminate worthless ideas and proposals soon after a determination can be made.
  • Identify the negative aspects of an otherwise viable idea so the idea can be improved.
  • Choose an alternative approach, if that can provide a better path to success.
  • Provide feedback.

The murder board format can also be used to prepare for a presentation, a debate or contentious meeting, a press briefing, a marketing campaign, a pitch meeting, or to rehearse sales presentations.

Advantages[edit | edit source]

Using a murder board can have the following advantages:[3]

  • It helps the organization select the best ideas from various alternatives being considered. The best ideas are then converted into projects.
  • The work the team undertakes to prepare the presentation and anticipate the murder board questions can improve the team’s understanding of their proposal. The team is likely to improve the concept before meeting with the board.
  • Because the board includes experts from a wide range of fields, the chances of committing mistakes are reduced.
  • Learning from the knowledge shared by the board members can improve the project.

Disadvantages[edit | edit source]

Using a murder board can also have these disadvantages:

  • The aggressive review can destroy the confidence of the presenter and the team.
  • A really good idea with potential of great benefits might get shot down.
  • The technique invites analysis paralysis that can cause delays, distractions, unproductive work, and risk aversion.
  • Undisciplined board members who are tempted to prove their supremacy may compete to be the first to kill the project.
  • If the reviewers are unprofessional, they can cause significant and lasting interpersonal damage.

The process[edit | edit source]

Follow these steps to form a board, prepare the team, and hold murder board sessions.

  • Choose people who are experts in the topic being explored who can be curious, inquisitive, insightful, skeptical, and candid.
  • Include people who represent a variety of viewpoints. This may include representatives from marketing, sales, design, engineering, manufacturing, verification, compliance, legal, medical, finance, customers, users, suppliers, and others.
  • Ask the board members to prepare questions that are likely to uncover weak spots in the proposal. The example questions provided below can be used as a guide or starting point.
  • Advise the presentation team to prepare carefully for the session. Share likely questions with the team so they can improve their concept and presentation before meeting with the board. Review with the team the rigor they should expect, the professionalism that is expected, the benefits to be gained by this grilling, and possible outcomes of the session. The team may want to hold their own practice sessions and rehearsals beforehand. It is best if team members stay calm and answer the questions during the murder board session.
  • Hold the first session. Take good notes.
  • If the project is terminated in this session, then thank the team for their good work, and help them move on to the next project.
  • If the project is allowed to continue, encourage the team to improve their proposal based on what they learned from the session.
  • When the improved proposal is ready, hold another murder board session.
  • Continue iterations as long as they seem productive.

Example questions[edit | edit source]

Expect members of a robust murder board to ask questions such as these.

What is the idea or proposal?[edit | edit source]

  • Describe the idea or proposal.
  • What problem does it solve?
  • How does this add value?
  • What do you want to have happen?
    • Describe your vision of a better world resulting from accepting this proposal.

What are the goals?[edit | edit source]

  • What goals does this proposal seek to achieve?
  • Are these goals chosen wisely?
    • Why do these goals matter?
    • To whom do they matter?
    • What is at stake?
    • What is the basis for choosing these goals?
    • What reference models suggest these goals?
      • Are these reference models relevant?
      • Are these reference models firmly based on reality?
    • Are we acting on unwise impulses?
  • Are the goals chosen unwisely, based on influences such as:
  • Why are these goals wise to pursue?
  • How do we know?

What is the current situation?[edit | edit source]

  • What is the current reality?
  • What do we know about the current situation?
    • How do we know?
      • Describe the investigation.
      • Are we being gullible?
      • Was the investigation superficial?
      • Are we acting on faulty information?
        • Are we being misled?
          • Is this a conspiracy theory?
          • Is this propaganda?
            • What special interests are in play?
            • How is power being used?
          • Are we influenced by a hidden agenda?
    • What is the evidence?
    • How did we evaluate the evidence?
      • Is the evidence representative?
      • Is the evidence reliable?
      • What are the sources of the evidence?
      • What doubts do we have about the evidence?
    • What are the unknowns?
    • What are the lingering doubts?
    • What are our assumptions?
  • What are the facts, controversies, opinions, and conjectures?
  • What was directly observed?
  • How were those observations interpreted?
    • What other interpretations might also fit those observations?
  • What is changing?
  • Are we overreacting?
  • Are we under reacting?
  • How do you know?

Why is this significant?[edit | edit source]

  • Why is this important?
    • What is at stake?
    • To whom is this significant?
  • What goals will be achieved?
    • How were those goals chosen?
  • How does this proposal achieve the stated goals?
    • What are the consequences of doing this?
    • What are the consequences of not doing this?
  • Why is this project significant?
  • Is this wise?
  • How do you know?

Is this strategic?[edit | edit source]

  • What strategy does it support?
  • What strategies does it thwart?
  • Are there bigger fish?
  • What tactics does it require?
  • Why is this project strategic?
  • How do you know?

Where does this reside in the causal chain?[edit | edit source]

Is this new?[edit | edit source]

  • Has this been tried before?
    • Why not?
  • How have you searched for similar or related problems or solutions?
  • What similar products, processes, policies, ideas, or approaches exist?
    • What did you learn?
    • What benchmarks come closest to this?
    • Have you explored relevant biomimicry solutions? What does nature do?
  • What is this most like?
  • How do you know?

Is this useful?[edit | edit source]

  • How is this useful?
  • Who will benefit?
    • Quantify those benefits.
    • Who will want this?
    • Who will buy this?
      • Who are the customers?
    • How does this promote well-being?
  • What are the drawbacks?
    • Who will oppose this?
    • What are the risks, dangers, other effects?
  • Why is this useful?
  • How do you know?

Is this timely?[edit | edit source]

  • Why now?
  • When did the need arise?
  • When will the need disappear?
    • When is too late?
  • What is the market window?
    • When did it open?
    • When will it close?
    • Is the market new, nascent, growing, mature, or declining?
  • Why must this be addressed now?
    • When would be a better time?
    • How can we wisely delay this?
  • In what stage of development is this?
    • Is it exploration, discovery, research, concept development, feasibility, specification, design, development, manufacturing, verification, launch, business development, or some other stage?
    • Are the deliverables expected for that development stage in hand?
      • Can I see them?
  • How do you know?

What does this compete with?[edit | edit source]

  • Describe the competitive landscape.
    • What are the external competitors?
    • What are similar projects in our organization?
  • How is this better than competitive solutions?
  • Why is this better than what is now or soon to be available?
  • How do you know?

What are the conflicts?[edit | edit source]

  • Who opposes this?
    • Why do they oppose?
    • Have you met with them to discuss this?
  • What will be negatively impacted by this?
  • Can we transcend the foreseeable conflicts?
  • Why will this prevail?
  • How do you know?

Is this the best approach?[edit | edit source]

  • How is this problem solved today?
  • What alternatives have you considered?
  • What do other’s do?
  • What are your responses to the Phoenix checklist questions?
  • What would be an ideal solution?
  • Why is this the best approach?
  • How do you know?

What are the unanticipated consequences?[edit | edit source]

  • What systems is this a part of?
    • Are we using a global perspective?
    • Is this a suboptimization?
      • What would be a broader-scope optimization?
  • What are the system effects?
  • How do you know?

What are the risks?[edit | edit source]

  • What are the unknowns?
  • How were the risks assessed?
    • What experts were engaged?
      • What aspects of the project did they study?
      • What did they learn?
      • What did they report?
      • What did they recommend?
    • What was the scope of the assessment?
    • What information was used?
    • Did we avoid the appeal to authority fallacy?
  • What risks have been identified?
  • How were those risks evaluated?
  • What are the risk estimates?
    • What is the range of risk estimates?
    • Quantify the risks.
    • What is the uncertainty of these estimates?
  • What is the worst possible outcome?
  • Are we being too optimistic?
  • Are we being too conservative?
  • Why should we undertake these risks?
  • How do you know?

What is the priority?[edit | edit source]

  • What other efforts are related to this?
  • Describe the significance of this proposal relative to each related project or proposal.
    • How does the significance of this proposal compare to the significance of related proposals?
    • Why is this more important that related projects?
    • Why is this more urgent than related projects?
  • What other efforts will it delay?
  • How are other efforts affected by assigning attention and other resources to this?
  • Describe the best time sequence for this and related projects to be undertaken.
  • How do you know?

Are we being deceived?[edit | edit source]

Does this idea need to be protected?[edit | edit source]

Should we do this?[edit | edit source]

  • Is it morally sound?
    • How do you know?
  • Is it morally superior to alternatives?
    • How do you know?
  • How can the idea be modified to become morally superior?
  • Is it safe for all?
  • Is this legal?
  • Does this meet applicable regulations?
  • Does this meet applicable standards?
  • What happens if we don’t do this?
    • Why must we act now?
    • Is this a distraction?
  • Is this the best alternative?
  • What improvements can we identify?
  • What’s the problem?
    • What’s the real problem?
      • What the problem really?
  • What does our intuition tell us?
    • Does this feel right?
    • What worries you?
  • Why should we do this?
  • How do you know?

Can we accomplish this?[edit | edit source]

  • Is this technically feasible?
    • Is this a research project or a development project?
    • What are the technical challenges?
    • What are the unknowns?
  • What must change for this project to succeed?
  • How will this solution be approached?
  • What is the implementation plan?
  • What help is needed?
  • Who can help?
  • Has an action plan been developed?
  • Do we have the expertise, people, money, time, commitment, resolve, and other resources to complete this?
  • How do we know?

Do we agree?[edit | edit source]

  • What can we agree to?
  • What remains unknown, unsettled, disputed, or contentious?
    • Why?
  • What have we learned?
  • What do we recommend?
    • go, kill, hold, recycle, or conditional go?
    • Other actions?
  • Do we have agreement?

References[edit | edit source]

  1. What is a murder board?. Scope Training, Nic Thomas.
  2. Michalko, Michael (June 8, 2006). Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques. Ten Speed Press. pp. 416. ISBN 978-1580087735.  Chapter 38.
  3. Murder Board Method of Project Selection, Testing Brain.