This is an oft-quoted axiom that sounds quite reasonable. I know I’ve learned a ton from my mistakes, and I’ve certainly made enough to stress-test the theory. As a young Field Artillery Platoon Leader leading my unit over the “forbidden bridge” I can attest to how quickly corrective feedback comes when you make a boneheaded mistake – that’s a story for another time, though!
But there is an inherent risk in this axiom if taken in isolation. Leaders who rely too heavily on processes geared to highlight and dissect what went wrong risk overlooking gems that could be culled from the successes and achievements of their teams and team members. A successful endeavor – not even a home run, but a simple success – can be a fertile field where details wait to be harvested that can help to perpetuate those successes.
When a deadline is missed, a performance objective is not met, a production outage occurs or the “wrong” bridge is crossed, then all sorts of mechanisms lurch into motion to identify the failure, determine its root cause and establish the roadmap to avoid the problem in the future. In some cases, employees are placed on Improvement Plans to help them bolster deficiencies in their performance. These are all needed and valuable, but alone cause us to leave money on the table, so to speak.
It’s easy to move quickly on from a success – or even a “meets objectives” – to get to the next critical item on our already overloaded plate of things to get done. Seldom does the boss come by to ask why nothing broke down today! However, inside those “met objectives” may have been a spark of genius from a team member that, if realized and shared, would have added another powerful tool to the entire team’s toolkit. There also may have been some bit of “dumb luck” that allowed us to unwittingly avoid a catastrophe and, if identified, may enable others to deliberately avoid those pitfalls in the future. Thoughtful reflection and accountability during the good times can be a huge benefit to a team.
In their article, Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success, Gino Francesca and Gary P. Pisano suggest three impediments to learning from success: an inclination toward fundamental attribution errors (believing that our talent or strategies yielded our successes), an overconfidence bias (success breeds confidence in achieving future success), and a failure-to-ask-why syndrome (the tendency not to investigate good performance). Whether by our unwarranted confidence or our dangerous complacency, if we don’t pay attention to evaluating why something went right then we cannot distinguish between our perceived brilliance and just plain luck.
In the Army, we used a technique called the After-Action Review (AAR). The principles are not new or proprietary, but their simplicity is what makes the AAR so powerful. The AAR would be conducted immediately following a training exercise and its purpose was to identify what went wrong and what went right and to determine how to sustain strengths and improve weaknesses. Each AAR would include these key points:
- Are conducted during or immediately after each event.
- Focus on intended training objectives.
- Focus on the soldier, leader, and unit performance.
- Involve all participants in the discussion.
- Use open-ended questions.
- Are related to specific standards.
- Determine strengths and weaknesses.
- Link performance to subsequent training.
The principles are timeless (as by definition, principles must be) but how one approaches employing these principles can be formal and sophisticated or very casual, almost imperceptible. When I work with the Boy Scouts we use a technique that is similar to the AAR but much less formal. We call it Roses, Thorns, and Buds. After a long day of hiking in the mountains or some other activity, we gather the young men together and ask them each to share something that went well and why they thought so – these are the Roses. We then ask them to share something they thought went poorly that we should avoid in the future – the Thorns. Finally, we ask them to share something that was a pleasant surprise that they would like to nurture and see continued – the Buds.
Whether you use these techniques – the AAR or Roses, Thorns, and Buds – or a framework of your own design, you can focus your teams on identifying and responding to the successes, as well as the failures, in almost any endeavor. By following a few key principles, and adjusting formality to fit the circumstances, an organization can establish a regular cadence of continuous improvement.
Over the years, when I have made the effort to reflect, I have learned just as well from my successes as from my mistakes, but it takes more discipline because all around us systems exist to pounce when we fail; not so much for our achievements. As leaders, we need to become comfortable with learning from the good, as well as the bad, that happens. This reflection is effective for the teams we lead, the team members we coach and mentor and perhaps most importantly, for ourselves. A quick Roses, Thorns, and Buds review at the end of our days or weeks can provide valuable insights that otherwise might go unnoticed.