Often when I teach a group the fundamentals of debriefing, I confront the reality that in our fast-paced world many organizations fail to address the fact that success isn't a given. In fact, not only do many leaders I meet with readily confess that they don't regularly debrief, they acknowledge that when they do, they do so to address failures or problems. Debriefing success as a regular occurrence is NOT a habit of many of the top organizations in the United States.
Just imagine the implications.
What if the success company A realized last quarter isn't a direct result of its awesome product or brilliant marketing? What if instead company A's success was a result of good luck and favorable market conditions? Can these factors be relied on to achieve consistent, positive results?
What if company B succeeded because of an innovative new approach used by one of its teams, an approach that deviates from standard procedures? What if this approach isn't fully adopted and goes away next quarter for some unexplained reason? Will Company B continue to succeed?
What happens when we take our victories for granted?
In their article titled "Why Leaders Don't Learn From Success", authors Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano highlight this exact problem when they note, "In business...any number of factors may lead to success, independent of the quality of a product or management’s decisions. Yet it is all too common for executives to attribute the success of their organizations to their own insights and managerial skills and ignore or downplay random events or external factors outside their control. Imagine, for instance, that you are leading a team whose numbers are great: It’s tempting to credit yourself or your team’s actions for that achievement, though it may actually just be a stroke of good luck or the result of your competitors’ problems."
Does this sound like your company? And does this sound like the way you might lead...from time to time? If so, what's the problem?
Gino and Pisano further posit "that success can breed failure by hindering learning at both the individual and the organizational level. We all know that learning from failure is one of the most important capacities for people and companies to develop. Yet surprisingly, learning from success can present even greater challenges." They go on to highlight fundamental attribution errorsand overconfidence biasas "two interrelated impediments to learning." Furthermore, "The third impediment is the failure-to-ask-why syndrome—the tendency not to investigate the causes of good performance systematically. When executives and their teams suffer from this syndrome, they don’t ask the tough questions that would help them expand their knowledge or alter their assumptions about how the world works."
Understanding the WHY behind performance is a key outcome of the debrief process.
One of the things we learned in the flying world was to not take our success for granted. Phrased another way, we ALWAYS investigated the root cause(s) of our successes to ensure we understood WHY we won. We did so because 1) we wanted to validate that our victory was a result of our good work and not luck; 2) we wanted to be able to justify celebrating individual successes of our teammates. The take-aways were consistently outstanding.
Instead of hoping we would continue to win in the future, we always understood why we won...which meant we also understood what it would take be able to win in the future. Instead of having to find people to call out during employee of the month-type events, we just looked at who it was that did consistently outstanding work as validated in the debriefs and highlighted them as our "Top Guns." Employee engagement was high, and we were extremely confident in our ability to replicate success in any domain the world-over.
After a recent workshop I received the following text from one of the attendees, the CEO of a very successful engineering firm. He shared the following observation with me, one that I will pass along to you: "I can't believe how common and comfortable it is to only debrief catastrophes. What a huge wasted opportunity. We debriefed our first win and through that developed a model to replicate more wins. WTF have I been missing out on?"
My advice: don't take your victories for granted. You may be amazed at what you find...