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November 6, 2017

How could you use After Action Reviews?

The US Army uses After Action Reviews to great effect. Yet this team learning tool is rarely if at all used in business. Would your company benefit from systematic debriefs?

After every engagement, the US Army holds an After Action Review (AAR). Their purpose is to identify exactly what happened and why so that the unit can apply lessons learnt to their next engagement.

Several principles make AARs work better than less-structured post-mortems. Accountability for the operation is reinforced through a clear comparison of intended vs. actual results achieved. The AAR is conducted by the front-line unit, for the benefit of the unit, as soon as possible after the action – it is not a remote back office staff activity. No tells the participants what they should have done – they draw their own lessons and apply them to make themselves more effective next time. There is no allocation of blame or search for faults. The US military know that if participants sense a blame hunt, they will become defensive and no learning will happen.

An AAR can be formal, with a facilitator guiding the team. This may be appropriate for a major action – a new market entry, a new product launch, a strategic initiative. Short, informal AARs could be held by team leaders at every milestone.

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, the companies that learn the fastest will thrive, whether they are exploring new services, customer needs or technologies or business models.

The biggest business challenge to holding useful After Action Reviews is not time, but company culture – the culture is too defensive and aggressive to hold them successfully. But how about turning this statement around – how much could an effective AAR mechanism contribute to creating a more constructive culture and, over time, a learning organisation?

October 31, 2017

What can we learn from Warren Buffet’s CEOs?

Warren Buffetts CEOs are extraordinarily successful. Their primary concern is their organisation’s long term performance, not their egos. Are the two linked?

In a recent annual report letter, Warren Buffett describes why the managers of his business are so special. How have they averaged an annual gain in earnings of 17.8% over the last 42 years? (Earnings growth of 1,000 times!) He explains that their extraordinary performance is due to their extraordinary motivations.

They have no financial need to work; they have nothing more to prove; they are running their businesses because they love to; they have exactly the job they want for the rest of their working years.

For most of us in the hustle of the corporate world, this description seems unreal. More common motivations are maximising the bonus, getting the next promotion, building our egos, positioning ourselves for when the head-hunter calls with the dream job.

Step back, and imagine yourself in one of Warren Buffetts CEOs shoes for a moment. You have no self-generated or external pressure to pump the short term at the expense of future years – you will be the one to eat your own cooking for many years to come!

You don’t play corporate games or have your mind half out the door. You are totally focused on your legacy, building an organisation that thrives and survives you.

Your team and customers also know that you are with them for the long term.

Berkshire Hathaway has shown it is possible, and the results it creates. Are we up to choosing to live by the same principles?

October 24, 2017

Will your business partners back you when the chips are down?

Strategic resilience is what will enable you to survive tough times. The Roman Empire survived defeats that would have destroyed other nations. What lessons can modern businesses learn from the legendary resilience of the Romans?

The Roman Empire had the best military machine of its day, but this was not sufficient on its own to guarantee its survival. The Romans suffered decisive defeats in their homeland from both Pyrrhus and Hannibal in the 3rd Century BC that would have destroyed any contemporary nation. After winning, the victors expected the Roman ambassadors to arrive and sue for peace. Instead, what turned up was another Roman army.

How did they sustain this? As well as indomitable will, they needed the extraordinary loyalty of their Italian allies. Even with the Romans reeling, the allies contributed their manpower to call up another army and rarely defected.

What inspired this loyalty? As would be expected of ancient times, self-interest trumped more noble rationales. With the Italian allies, the Romans were generous in victory, creating an incentive system with 4 tiers of citizenship for allies to climb, with rich rewards at the top. The Italian allies simply saw their best future as partners of Rome.

The business equivalent is how a dominant player treats their business partners, their employees, suppliers and customers. In the good times, do you use your strong negotiating position to maximize your profits at their expense? Or do you create incentives that allow them to thrive too?

In tough times, do you expect them to stick with you, or embrace your attacker who can offer them a more attractive future?

October 17, 2017

Do your initial briefs reflect your strategy?

A a leader, your maximum influence on any initiative is in the initial brief. This is where you lay out the specific results the initiative will deliver and provide guidance for the team so they can make the right trade-off decisions during execution. If the initial brief does not reflect your strategy it is unlikely to trickle in later.

Whenever you kick off a new action, whether it is a new project, a market entry, a product development effort or a process implementation, there is always a written or verbal brief to the team who will deliver it. Research on development projects has long established that the ability to impact cost and functional capabilities is highest at the start of a project, and then falls precipitously as decisions and mindsets are locked-in.

Taking the time to step back will become harder as progress reviews become more and more executional. Nobody wants to hear “Why didn’t you tell us this 6 months ago?” If the link to the strategy is not clearly established up-front in the brief, it is unlikely to be introduced later.

A good brief lays out the specific results expected and explains how they advance the strategy. How will success be “unquestionably” measured? What are the key underlying assumptions the team must confirm? What is the level of importance and urgency to guide the team when they make time, cost and quality trade-offs? Is there a next stage that builds upon this initiative?

Creating a good initial brief for a strategic initiative takes considerable thought, but is one of top management’s biggest contributions to successful execution.

October 10, 2017

Does your agenda need a good prune?

Dedicate your next executive team meeting to creating an “inaction” list to prune your agenda to improve your strategic focus


Every meeting your organisation holds generates more and more action points to be piled on people’s heads. How about breaking the pattern, just once? The next time you get your management team together, use it to remove things from your plate. Watch the smiles break out around the table!

The starting point for this is to actually lay out everything that your organisation has committed to. You will be surprised how many initiatives, projects, actions, priorities, goals and objectives you have on the go. And if you add up the resources they require, you are attempting to eat two or three times more than you can digest.

You might argue that this is OK, that it is perfectly natural to have stretching ambitions even though it cannot all be done. Unfortunately, this overload will have negative consequences on strategic focus:

  • Knowing they cannot get it all done, the team will focus on delivering something – usually a small unimportant initiative, leaving the key strategic initiatives stalled
  • The organisation gets used to letting initiatives slide, reducing accountability

Organisations accumulate initiatives, projects and actions like ships collect barnacles, through a natural process of entropy. Like ships, this accumulation slows them down, and they need to be scrubbed clean regularly.

What meetings and reports can we manage without? If we lay out and prioritise the full list of projects we are attempting, can we drop the bottom 20%? What are the top 3 policies that contradict our values? What processes and reports can we scrap? What things are we pretending we will do, but secretly know that we won’t? What are we currently doing that, given a blank piece of paper, we would not start again? What are we spending time on that is not critical to our strategy? It may help to have this meeting facilitated to cut the deadwood systematically without pointing fingers or triggering defensiveness about pet projects.

The persistent reason that organisations make slow progress towards their strategy is that people are too busy on other things. Your people’s time is your organisation’s scarcest resource – it can’t be substituted for money.

Considering that every other meeting held adds to the agenda, surely it is worth some management time dedicated to prune back your strategic agenda occasionally? Every gardener knows their rosebushes grow stronger and more vigorously after a good pruning.