What would happen if every single member of your team was prepared to tell the truth, the real truth, knowing that they would be listened to and without fear of blame, recrimination or discrediting behaviour from others? Could you imagine just what that would do for your commercial performance, competitive edge and employee well-being?
It would almost certainly require change…change of mindset, change of behaviour, change of team/business culture. But the pay-off would far outweigh the potentially uncomfortable new beginnings and you would quickly demonstrate that lessons can be learned at all levels of an organisation, from all scenarios. And the secret to real success is then applying those learned lessons into whatever you do next, and learning from that experience for the next time, and so on.
Successful leaders value and nurture a learning culture in their workplace as one of the key ways to retain that competitive edge over their business competitors.
How is it that a US Army Training force, for example, consistently outwits and out-performs its combat-ready, stronger, better-resourced and technologically more advanced mock battle opposition? Answer: They constantly practise and learn then put those lessons into practice and practise again what they’ve learned – and repeat, day in, day out, at every stage of every operation.
The US Army’s opposing Force, OPFOR, is a model organisation for implementing the After Action Review (AAR) process, something that we at iTS Leadership are proud to showcase to business clients as an innovative concept to help them increase their profits and smiles – a fulfilled workforce delivering consistently better results. And our focus with clients has been on the value of creating a learning environment over seeking to apportion blame for specific incidents under the spotlight, changing the way they think, react and learn.
OPFOR is a brigade used to test the readiness of other units (BLUFOR) to enter a combat zone in a real-time military exercise.
A report in the Harvard Business Review of July, 2005, entitled ‘Learning in the Thick of It’ sums up its repeated successes and pinpoints the prime reason as its application of AAR and associated learning culture that pervades the unit. The report’s authors suggest that AAR should be considered a verb not a noun – people should live with, and apply, the idea throughout the lifetime of a project rather than simply seeing a review of activity at the end as a post-mortem.
The force sees every action as an opportunity for learning – particularly about how to think in any forthcoming scenario – as lessons are only considered truly learned once they are applied, connecting past experience directly with future action. If a leader sets out clearly the questions an AAR will address at the conclusion of a project before embarking on it, every team member will be able to apply his/her thinking to them at every stage: intended results, challenges we can anticipate, what we’ve learned from similar situations, what will make us successful this time?
The AAR process in OPFOR is applied to every phase of a campaign, starting with the senior commander’s operational orders consisting of four parts: the task, the purpose, the commander’s intent and the end state or desired outcome. These are shared with other team leaders who ‘brief back’ – tell him their understanding of their role – to ensure everyone is on the same page and then the mission is rehearsed, a process which is debriefed, lessons shared, predictions about what will work in the future amended accordingly and a verdict reached on how well the unit assessed and dealt with challenges.
And that’s just the preparatory phase. OPFOR is not an organisation that has introduced AAR as a process at the conclusion of an operation – it holds them at the end of each significant phase so that any acquired learning can be deployed immediately in the next stage with the appropriate changes in place.
Recent studies suggest that most employees want to experience career growth but only a small percentage of them feel engaged enough to make their current role work for them due to outdated training methods and the workplace culture.
Engaged employees are more receptive to learning…true teamwork
Isolated instructor-led learning is less attractive than it once was in today’s fast-paced environment – real-time, on-the-job learning is considered a much more effective tool to engage staff and thus develop motivated teams driving the business forward together. Engaged employees are more receptive to learning – both receiving information relevant to their day-job and, therefore, the growth of the company but also sharing good practice with colleagues. True teamwork.
A learning culture is at its strongest when staff feel safe to ask questions of peers and superiors and voice opinions which they know will be valued, even if they are not ultimately acted upon. The AAR process actively fosters such a culture. As the Harvard Review authors point out from the OPFOR ‘house rules’: ‘Participate. No thin skins. Leave your stripes at the door.’
Yes, there is still a very real place for accountability, but it should not be a process which involves looking back or apportioning blame. Rather, it should be the accountability of leaders in an organisation to take lessons from one situation and apply them to others moving forward, being prepared to change for the better.
Businesses that follow this example will always be more effective than those which firefight individual crises, fix one-off errors or concentrate on a technical solution for an isolated glitch. Successful organisations use perceived failure as an opportunity to drive onto greater things.
A participant on a recent broadcast of the BBC’s Question Time asked if Donald Trump was fit to be leader of the free world. While opinions around the table, and from the audience, differed widely, it is to be hoped that Mr Trump applies all his business acumen and learnings to any previous personal failings to show the watching world that he is.
A newspaper headline on the morning of his inauguration announced: ‘The day the world changes’. Was it negatively seeking to apportion blame on the 45th President – or positively offering a ray of hope for the future? Only time will tell.
Author: Jayne George