Reviewing Past Performance is a Great Recipe for Improving
Reviewing the past will help you form impeccable best practices and circumvent the snares of failure.
The best way to improve is to reflect on past efforts and then attempt to eliminate the actions that did not work. At the same time, you should embrace and expand those actions that were met with success. Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s so hard, in fact, to learn from the past that there are countless warnings about the dangers of heeding the past so you will not be doomed to repeat it. I think this warning was best described as "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" by George Santayana. Which was later restated by Winston Churchill in a 1948 speech to parliament where he stated: “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
So why are there so many examples and stories about the need to learn from the past – simple really – because we repeat past mistakes all the time. And it’s not because we don’t want to learn, I think it’s just that we are busy and would rather look to the future than the past. We are, after all, linear creatures when it comes to time. Having no ability to actually change the past can make reviewing it a painfully tedious prospect. This is compounded if the past event did not turn out the way we intended. I could digress into the psychosomatic reason for our tendency to not review the past, but I think it suffices to say we should spend more time reviewing the past to develop a better way to move forward.
To not repeat the mistakes of the past we must be purposeful and consistent. I knew I needed a simple, repeatable process. And while I knew for years I needed to institute a system to develop better best practices I also knew I wasn't doing it. In fact, many years went by where I fell into the cycle knowing I should review every one of our campaigns but failed to really develop a system that worked. Sure I attempted to loosely reflect on the what went right and what went off the rails, but I had disregarded my military training and how we would review and learn from even the simplest efforts. Luckily something woke me up and I began to develop a system we could use in business that had structure and was easily repeatable.
In the US Army at the end of every real or practice mission, the leader would conduct an After Action Review (AAR). This was a structured format for a debriefing process to analyze what happened, why it happened and how it could be done better in the future. The great benefit of the AAR was it provided a clear comparison between intent and actual results. This I believed was key to learning from the past.
In most corporate “debriefs” that I was exposed to, people would explain what happened with thoughts and feelings typically skirting around the bad and attempting to protect their egos. I’m sure they did this for many complex reasons, perhaps to protect their jobs or avoid ridicule or maybe they just didn’t have a good format to use. Worse of all I would see supervisors use failures of plans to assign blame. Rarely would they use the discussion to develop action items that would lead to continual improvement.
These informal discussions, to the extent they even occurred, fundamentally pushed people to withhold facts, dodge blame and highlight what they intended instead of what actually occurred. At its worse debriefs cause people to hide the failure entirely and only focus on the good. And while people will leave these meetings “feeling” better about themselves it rarely leads to long term improvements.
I knew we had to implement a model similar to the one I learned in the military. We needed a model that reduced emotion and feelings and grounded us in facts. The issue I faced is the AAR format I was taught didn't translate well to business. Sure tons businesses had edited the format in different ways but all too often these updated business AARs lost the factually driven nature of the military and allowed too much opinion and speculation to take place. In essence, they still felt like people were worried about “blame” instead of improving.
Learning the lessons of the military and taking guidance from business leaders and reviewing countless other formats I arrived at what I believe is a model that focuses more on improving than blame. It must, however, be run by a well-disciplined individual that will strictly follow the format and not allow emotion to drive the discussion.
I do realize the need for an emotional release and there is a place in the model below to allow emotion and opinion to occur but it is not the main driver. When running this model you should allow for the release of emotion but must stay fixed on the main goal - improvement. The key to success is to put egos aside, stay focused on the facts and avoid blame. The last point and most likely the most important way to use this model is consistency. Both successful projects and projects that failed should be put through this model. Your team must learn from both the wins and fails. Do not use this model to punish the team by only discussing the fails, you must highlight what they did right too!
MARSI - After Action Review Model
MARSI = Mission, Action, Result, SWOT Analysis, Improvements
Let me first describe each part, then I will provide a couple examples to provide clarity.
MISSION - Describe the mission. This should be limited to only one or two sentences. If it’s longer than that it feels more like a vision statement and less concrete. Great examples of missions must be concrete and time-bound. Secure approval of a new development by July 1st, Recruit 500 students to our school by August, increase sales by 20% this quarter are all solid examples.
ACTION - List the activities or tasks performed. The key is not to allow emotion to come into play - just the actual tasks that were conducted. If people use the word "We tried to" that is not an action that was performed and should not be allowed. Think about these as one-sentence statements detailing what they exactly did.
RESULT - Win or lose. No other answer should be accepted here. This mission was accomplished or it wasn’t. This is really hard on people, especially if they weren't successful. It will take time and practice to get people to say flat out if they won or lost. Often they will attempt to explain what the end result was instead of owning the truth. A good rule of thumb is if they are explaining it’s because they lost. Winning never needs an explanation. It is important to state that this is not about blame but improving, work to take the pressure off here until your team has gone through this process several times.
SWOT – I think many of us had performed a standard SWOT analysis, where you list the Strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and Threats of a project, team or company. Typically I am not a big fan of SWOT analysis because people will spend most of their time discuss the positives aspects and not enough time focusing on what to do about their weaknesses or the threats they face. It is, however, a great opportunity for the team to discuss all the thoughts that are on their minds. This is where they can share what they tried that didn't work, vent about the project and discuss their emotional beliefs about the project. This is necessary to move on. If we don’t allow people to have the release of their opinions they may not listen or be proactive when they get to what’s need to improve.
IMPROVEMENTS – Now we have come to the most critical piece. What can we do to improve for next time? Win or lose we should always focus on improvements. Ending here also allows us to fulfill the psychological need of ending on a positive note.
EXAMPLE – Issue Campaign
This example illustrates the basic reporting system focusing on facts and data.
Mission: Win the approval of a majority of voters August 2nd for a new city tax to improve the infrastructure of the community
Action: 140,000 mail pieces delivered to 35,000 key voters; 3 TV spots run for 4 weeks on the stations, 320 hours of volunteer work canvass targeted neighborhoods, 6 letters to the editor placed and 1 opinion piece placed in the local paper. Achieved 56% of the voters’ approval.
SWOT: Recorded discussion covering SWOT allowing people to express their opinions about the Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Improvements: Mail pieces were delivered timely buy design and production were rushed. We need to develop stricter timetables to develop messaging. TV spots were discussed on social media and seemed to be a hit. While social media and online advertising are increasing there is still a place for TV ads and we should continue to keep them in the budget for future efforts.
EXAMPLE 2 - Student Recruitment Campaign
This example illustrates that even when the Mission is close to being achieved but the exact metrics have not been realized that the campaign is still listed as a loss. This is instructive because it allows for certain improvements to be learned related to the overall mission objectives.
Mission: Recruit 850 New students to the district schools by Aug 2nd.
Action: Refer to spreadsheet outlining task completed which includes: 4500 door knocks of targeted families, direct targeted Ads on social media platforms for 8 weeks (details on spreadsheet), Ambassador training and live calls to 6500 targets, 3 pieces of mail outlining narrative to return to public schools highlighting 3 main points; 802 micro-commitment forms obtained. 795 new students enrolled.
SWOT: Recorded discussion covering SWOT allowing people to express their opinions about the Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Deep dive into targets and responses.
Improvements: Restructure mission to a good better best standard. Originally the goal of 700 students was discussed but was later expanded to include a stretch goal of 850. While the Target of 850 pushed the team to go well beyond the original goal of 700, the setting of this larger goal increased expectations to an unrealistic amount and left the team deflated despite the massive win for the district in general. After a detailed discussion, the team recommends setting benchmark calls in the future. For instance, in this case, goals of 710, 790 and 850 would have been more realistic.