February 2020 | 

Forget Post-Mortems: Here’s How to Learn from Mistakes

Forget Post-Mortems: Here’s How to Learn from Mistakes

Executives at Hitachi come together after team defeats for Ochibo Hiroi meetings, ostensibly to learn from their mistakes and improve future performance. But, notes Todd Henshaw, a senior fellow at Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, 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 prostrates himself and apologizes in front of the group. The learning is minimal: 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.”

Henshaw has worked with participants in the Advanced Management Program, as well as executive teams in Asia, Europe, and the United States, showing them that there is a better way than “post-mortems” and Ochibos. “Just think about the term itself: post-mortem. 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 says the benefits of the AAR far outweigh those of the post-mortem.Post-mortems 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 allowed us to perform better or worse than we anticipated? Post-mortems rarely get to this question. It’s single-loop learning instead of double.”

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 happened compared to our strategy)?
  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 for a 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,” Henshaw says.

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.”

These steps can help make that happen:

  1. Schedule After Action Reviews consistently to learn from both successes and failures. “Post-mortems” have a negative connotation that discourages participation and enthusiasm. AARs should be held during or immediately after successful and non-successful events, using the positive positioning of improving your own performance and not that of someone else.
  2. Gather relevant facts and figures related to the team’s performance. If project deadlines have been missed, product standards are being ignored, or client feedback is disregarded in the team’s execution, these facts set the foundation for an AAR that is grounded in relevant data.
  3. Make participation mandatory and involve all team members in the discussion — even customers, partners, and suppliers can be included. Each participant will likely have a different perspective on the event, and this serves as a key input into the AAR. Everyone’s voice is important, so you must be able to receive criticism from a few levels down. Open-ended questions that are related to specific standards or expectations will encourage involvement.
  4. Have a three-pronged focus: performance of team members, the leader, and the team as a whole. Keep the attention on facts and outcomes: what are the strengths and weaknesses of each? This focus keeps the discussion centered on what the team can control (as opposed to what is happening at headquarters or on another team).
  5. Follow the “Rules of Engagement.” To encourage honest participation and mutual trust, AARs must be: confidential (joint learning is shared, but individual comments are not), transparent, focused on individual and team improvement and development, and in preparation for “next time.”
  6. Share learning across the organization. Many organizations, including Huber and Microsoft, use databases or blogs to make the lessons of AARs available via intranet to all of their teams. It’s inefficient to withhold key learnings from other teams and allow them to make the same mistakes or prevent them from replicating best practices.
  7. Consider scheduling a Before Action Review (BAR) prior to your next significant event. The team would benefit from a review of lessons learned and potential integration of these lessons into the new plan or performance standards.