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Why Most Businesses Fail to Learn

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“If you gloss over your mistakes you are just another smoking hole in the ground.”

How effectively does your organization learn? How will you take your mistakes (and successes) and systematically turn them into better execution on the next project? And how can you improve your processes so your organization can consistently and predictably turn ideas into outcomes? One critical tool is the debrief.

The value of regularly debriefing all projects is a lesson I learned from the workshop and the book Flawless Execution. It is an idea lost on most American businesses. And one reason that most businesses fail to learn.

The daylong event is conducted by former military pilots. They teach military techniques and systems thinking to business leaders. One of their lessons is that every mission follows a process of brief – execute – debrief, and they have a specific procedure for converting what they learn into company-wide improvements.

In most businesses, projects are begun, projects are completed, and the group moves on to the next thing. There are clients to see. Hours to make billable. But without a systematic and consistent debrief, lessons are missed. Without asking what went wrong and how that affected the outcome, we miss the opportunity to systematically get better. The military does not make that particular mistake. At least not in high-stakes missions. You don’t send a young man up into the sky at the controls of a $30 million aircraft without taking every precaution you possibly can to bring them both back unharmed. When the elite soldiers are performing in their roles, they are awe-inspiring. One lesson learned in Vietnam was the power of a systematic review process and how it could accelerate learning.

They discovered that most aviator casualties occurred in the first 10 missions. If a pilot could survive the first 10 there was a good chance he would survive 100 and go home.

“As it happened, some squadrons were more successful in those first ten missions than others. What the Air Force discovered was that some squadrons did the full-on plan-brief-execute-debrief process, but some did not . Those that did kept more pilots alive than those that didn’t. It was learned that not only was debriefing vitally important but that communicating the lessons learned— accelerating the learning curve —was enough to give a three-mission pilot the tools and skills of a thirty-mission pilot. It was all about survival. And it was that simple.”[i]

How do you accelerate learning on your team? The flawless execution crew has come up with a process they call STEALTH you can apply in your company. The steps are:

  • Set the time/location/preparation
  • Tone
  • Execution versus objectives
  • Analyze execution
  • Lessons learned
  • Transfer lessons
  • High note

Set the time/location/preparation – Make debriefing a standard step in your project process. Build the expectation that upon a specific benchmark – a day, a week, a quarter, or the completion of a project – there will be a meeting to review outcomes. Make it a specified length. Start on time and end on time. Make sure everyone knows what they need to bring.

Tone – There can be no rank during the debrief. Everyone is the same level. In debriefing sorties, fighter pilots actually pull off their names and rank that are attached to their uniforms by Velcro. The project leader begins the meeting by pointing out mistakes he made in the first person. From there, everything is done by addressing team members roles in the third person. No second person talk (“you made this mistake”) or names (“Joe was late in following up with the client”). Observations should be factual. “The paraplanner sent the follow up letter two days later than scheduled.” “The lead planner did not enter the meeting notes into the CRM following the client appointment.”

Execution versus objectives – Review the outcome of the project compared with the planned outcome. Discuss what was done rather than what was missing. We attracted 35 clients to the event versus the expected 50. The “office news” section of the current issue of the email newsletter solicited 80 clicks to our website compared with the 40 that were anticipated.

Analyze execution – Review the steps of the process and the results of each. Did each step go as the team envisioned?

Lessons learned – Most mistakes reflect a flaw in the system rather than the negligence of a particular person. If someone made a mistake, what root cause can be found in their training? In the process? In the checklist they were using? Look for patterns. Focus on the big things. Identify opportunities for the system to be improved. Those lessons can subsequently benefit all future projects.

Transfer lessons – Make a plan to distribute the lessons throughout the organization. Find ways to reflect them in smarter procedures, checklists, processes.

High note – Conclude the meeting with a positive summation.

This is a valuable approach for all your projects – implementing new technology, adjusting your client onboarding process, even some financial planning issues. I think it has particularly good application in your marketing efforts. Evaluate that client appreciation event – how was the turnout compared to your expectations, what kind of feedback did you get from participants, how many referrals came out of it? How well did the last public relations campaign meet your expectations of press reports and public inquiries?

Did you just start trying remote meetings? Gather the staff together and review them. Was the technology as easy to use as you thought? Was the clients response what you anticipated? What specific things happened in some of those meetings that should become standard for all of those meetings?

One exercise we take advisors through is to help them create a new positioning statement and then test it with clients. Reserve a few minutes at the beginning of review meetings and ask a list of predetermined questions about it. A debrief is critical. Do clients believe the statement is a good reflection of their own experience with the advisor? How well does it reflect what that client feels is most valuable about what the advisor does? Part of the exercise, of course, is to teach clients the language we want them to use when they talk with their friends to more effectively generate referrals. Without gathering that feedback and reviewing how those conversations went, you will not know whether the clients will actually pick up on that language and repeated to people.

Step six in the financial planning process is to benchmark your progress and make sure you are still on track. You can keep your strategic plan on track by applying that same principle to your business. And the debrief can be a valuable tool to help you.

[i] Murphy, James D. (2010-11-16). Flawless Execution: Use the Techniques and Systems of America’s Fighter Pilots to Perform at your Peak and Win Battles in the Business World (Kindle Locations 2072-2076). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 
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