My first mentor in consulting—think stern, silver-haired, driven genius who never settled for less than his (or my) very best work—taught me one of the most important skills I ever learned.
The one habit that—over time—will help spawn your best work.
The after action review.
Born in the military, it’s better than the usual debrief where we’re all busily (if unintentionally) assigning blame.
Because the after action review is focused on you. What you’d planned to happen versus what actually did. It’s not about how your client or colleagues could have improved. No sir. It’s about how YOU could have better served your vision.
No finger pointing. No righteous anger. Just an inward focused understanding of what you did that derailed your plan. When it involves multiple team members, each one looks to his/her own role and shares their perspective on JUST THEIR OWN PERFORMANCE.
I’ve worked inside firms where this would have been career suicide. But that first mentor—Don M—always made it safe. Because his allegiance was to the work. He was a purist. A man of towering integrity who you could always count on to do the right thing for the work.
When you’re running your own firm, after action reviews—and not just for the projects that went sideways—are lifesavers.
It’s how we learn which clients (and team members) we’re temperamentally suited for. If you can do a clear-eyed after action review and own your mistakes, you have a clarity that will help you avoid those same missteps or the circumstances that produced them.
I once had a client who would not (or could not) tame her temper. I never knew who would be on the other end of the line—the seasoned pro who came to meetings well-prepared and focused—or the temporary werewolf who used her consultants as a misplaced outlet for her anger.
An AAR after our first project together made me quickly realize that I was not doing my best work for her. Sure I could blame it on her mercurial personality, but that wasn’t the point. It’s that I couldn’t produce the great work she deserved. She wasn’t going to change her style and I wasn’t willing to adapt.
We parted ways amicably.
The point is, very few projects—or relationships for that matter—proceed exactly the way we planned. And when the results suck, it’s time to understand why or we’re doomed to repeat them.
Try the after action review. Just consider what you could have/would have done differently.
And then use that insight next time.
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