April 2012 | 

Want a Stronger Team? Some Lessons from the U.S. Army

lessons from army

Executives at Hitachi come together after team defeats for Ochibo meetings, ostensibly to learn from their mistakes and improve future performance. But, notes Wharton's Director of Executive Leadership Programs Todd Henshaw, the process is a painful one in which the actual learning could be much greater. “The goal of the Ochibo is to figure out who failed at what. Then, that person explains in depth how mistakes were made and how the individual intends to improve their performance. The learning is unfortunately limited to examining suboptimal performance: it's 'we failed, so now let’s go back to the drawing board.' In reality, you may have done a number of things right, but the process doesn’t recognize that. It doesn’t reinforce innovation or major successes.”

Henshaw has worked with executive teams in Asia, Europe, and the United States, showing them that there is a better way than “postmortems” and Ochibos. “Just think about the term itself: postmortem. How excited can you get about a meeting that’s about dissecting your failures? Aren’t your achievements worth learning from as well?” Henshaw, the former director of military leadership at West Point, teaches instead a process developed by the United States Army in the 1970s to improve learning for its soldiers.

“The After Action Review [AAR] has been called one of the most successful organization learning methods, but most organizations either do it incorrectly or they do it a few times and then drop it.” Henshaw tells executives in Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams that the benefits of the AAR far outweigh the postmortem.Postmortems aren’t focused on learning, and they don’t happen after a success. Half the time in an AAR is typically spent on the ‘Why’ — do we understand why the situation or our actions allowed us to perform better or worse than we anticipated? Postmortems rarely get to this question. It’s single-loop rather than double-loop learning.”

The After Action Review itself consists of four questions:

  1. What did we intend to accomplish (what was our strategy)?
  2. What did we do (what was the difference between strategy and execution)?
  3. Why did it happen that way (why was there a difference between strategy and execution)?
  4. What will we do to adapt our strategy or execution for better outcome, or how do we repeat our success?

“Teaching the basic After Action Review is easy. You get your team together and use the four questions as the basis for a discussion. But they’re not very effective when they’re simply a ‘sterile technique.’ To really get the benefits, the AAR has to be ingrained in the DNA of your organization. And to get that result, the team leader has a lot of responsibility.”

Leaders, explains Henshaw, first need to schedule AARs after important events, regardless of the outcome. “Holding AARs when your team has succeeded provides positive reinforcement. The celebratory ones can reveal just as much learning, and they make it easier to do the negative ones. But the leader has to be consistent. The first time you don’t schedule it, or you don’t show up, sends the message that it’s not important. You have to reinforce it.”

Leaders must also create a climate in which team members can challenge current ways of thinking and performing. Without transparency, selflessness, and candor, the trust necessary to conduct successful AARs will be missing. Leaders have to be willing to admit when they were at fault, and to openly acknowledge when success is due to others. It’s only in this climate that people will be willing to share, and everyone’s voice will be heard.

For the executives in Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams, the After Action Review is presented only after they’ve completed an exercise that they can draw learnings from. “Crossing the River” gives teams of highly competitive executives the opportunity to compete against one another for speed. “It’s not a complex exercise, but the lessons that come out of it are powerful,” notes Henshaw. “Some teams worry more about beating the others than about performing at their best. And most of them are risk-averse as they begin. Someone may suggest the correct solution at the beginning, but the idea gets shot down because it’s not expected. Often teams create more rules than I provide, limiting the available options and potential innovations."

The most powerful lesson from Crossing the River is that the more each team trusts its members, allowing them to complete the exercise without a series of explicit instructions, the faster they go. "If as a leader your intent is clear, and you give people the information and the vision they need, they can get their job done on their own. They might not do it exactly as you expected, but they get it done. The more information and intent you provide your people, the more efficient your organization becomes.

"The exercise is an 'aha' moment for a lot of executives because it gets them physically and emotionally involved. Most people, especially if they're Type A, never question the way they might micromanage their teams. They're not empowering people to be innovative, to find better solutions. I've heard back from a number of participants who said it made them change the way they lead their teams."