Archeologists have been called a number of names. Of those that don’t make me cringe, “Reverse Engineers” is one of my favorites.


Personalities aside, one of our skills should include the ability to dismantle a current situation to its origins. As reverse engineers, we rely on the artifacts and data we discover along the way to compare with what has been uncovered before. As scientists, we are delighted and excited with how our findings do or do not line up with what others think. Debate and an evolution in thinking is all part of the scientific process. It is dynamic, cerebral, often passionate, and, for the most part, fun.

This should be the case for all applied social sciences.


 In my role as a healthcare leader, I have coordinated many planning meetings. Like others, I have used the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) approach to generate ideas and direct the discussion of planning groups to action plans and goals that everyone present can agree on. These discussions are for brainstorming and are usually optimistic about the future.

Another planning approach that appeals to the reverse engineer in me is called the Pre-mortem or the Failure Dream exercise.

This is how I present the Failure Dream:

  1. I have everyone participate in a simple relaxation exercise to shake off some of the daily stress and open their minds and imagination. I will usually lead Pranayama breathing of full and deep diaphragmatic breathing in and out of the nose.
  2. With eyes still closed, I have everyone focus on a specific project that is being considered for implementation.
  3. I then announce that this project has been implemented BUT has failed. Everyone opens their eyes and have only two minutes to write down all the reasons why it has failed.
  4. Next, they hand in their reasons.
  5. I share these reasons on a white board with the group. Unlike in the SWOT exercise, I encourage people to debate the reasons of failure.
  6. With this information in hand, I can then:
  • re-evaluate the project and consider scuttling it before it reaches implementation.
  • But,if the project moves forward, I use this list as a punch card to assure that all possibilities of failure are being addressed.

I have found that participants will be more candid and less cognizant of the opinions of their peers and leader in this exercise because it is unexpected and the reasons are written quickly.

Reverse engineering can uncover concerns not always recognized when you and your organization is charging forward.

In my last blog I listed the fundamental skills identified by David Autor of MIT needed to succeed in all jobs. They were:

  1. Communicate
  2. Tell a story
  3. Analyze
  4. Articulate

Although I am admittedly the least imaginative storyteller in my family, I still savor an imaginative story delivered with passion. Our hero (many times not a hero at all in the beginning) will probably face huge odds. He/She will probably fail, learn, regroup, and return again face the “Beast” or “Abomination” and finally succeed.

The power of a compelling story can inspire and change people’s perceptions and prejudices. It can also reinforce our beliefs and values. During his life, the great mythologist Joseph Campbell developed the theory of the “Hero’s Journey” and its power to strengthen our cultural story.

Joseph Campbell saw universal patterns embedded in myths, spiritual literature, fairy tales, popular books, and films, as well as in psychological development.

The man credited with “Follow your bliss,” identified twelve stages in the heroic or mythic journey for the archetype hero. They are in order:

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. The Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Ordeal
  9. The Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. The Resurrection
  12. Return with the Elixir

As a frame of reference think of Jason and the Argonauts, Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament, Beowulf, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. Campbell wrote that when we find the abomination, we find God. For it is those moments that we gain awakening and growth.

 All of these heroes embarked on a journey that was difficult and yet they persevered even with opportunities to back out. We are all on a journey, and so are our projects.

As I briefly noted above, these universal patterns can be seen not only in the journeys of our cultural, spiritual, and mythical national heroes, but also in our own personal journey.

Psychologist David Gordon in his 2007 work Mindful Dreaming saw that our sleeping dreams followed a similar pattern to that outlined by Joseph Campbell. He listed these stages as:

  1. The Calling
  2. The Quest
  3. Illumination
  4. The Return

In his practice, David Gordon counseled individuals to use their dreams to heal and to move forward.   Furthermore, he encouraged his clients to indentify seemingly threatening individuals in their dreams as mentors. Yes, mentors.

These mentors are there to lend a helping hand and facilitate the dreamer’s intentions regardless how threatening or off-putting they may seem at first (harking back to Dr. Campbell and his stage 4). Gordon asks his clients to immediately write down their dreams and then to share these dreams in groups.

His intention is that his clients will learn not to fear their dreams, but as a returning hero, become their own mentor.

Gordon concludes, “It is shamethe most powerful negative human thoughtthat alienates us from awareness of our true nature.”

Instead of fearing ones dreams and “nightmares,” it is our dreams that help us identify our problems and then provides us a way to a more fulfilling life along our own Heroic Journey.