Using learning to accelerate performance

This is an extract from founder of Mission Excellence Justin Hughes’s new book, The Business of Excellence. Hughes was the keynote speaker at Recruiter’s recent ‘Executive Briefing: Inspiring an innovation culture’.

Fri, 21 Oct 2016 | By Justin Hughes

This is an extract from founder of Mission Excellence Justin Hughes’s new book, The Business of Excellence. Hughes was the keynote speaker at Recruiter’s recent ‘Executive Briefing: Inspiring an innovation culture’.

The focus here is the capture and application of learning from operational experience, both how we do that and how we make it as objective as possible. 

This is different to a learning and development process or learning a new functional skill. It is learning on the job in real time, and applying it swiftly to drive performance improvement. 

The primary example used is the debrief – the review that occurs at the end of a task or project, or at some key milestone. In the context of delivery, the debrief is where we close the execution cycle:

Plan – Brief – Execute – Debrief

What actually is a debrief? At Mission Excellence, we define it as follows:

A debrief is an objective assessment of team performance against a plan, carried out by the team themselves, ideally at the end of a time-bounded period of activity with a defined outcome.

A little bit of history

It is difficult to define one continuous thread in the development of debriefing practice. Many operational parts of the military will practise some form of debriefing, and the US Army appears to have staked some claim to be the originator of After Action Review (AAR), at least in academic literature.

The AAR is one form of debrief that, by virtue of its very simple generic approach, can be easily applied to many environments, although it does have some limitations.

Outside of the military, AAR often only occurs when something went wrong. The issue then is that it’s going to be a lot more difficult to have a good quality, open and honest conversation if the process is not a routine event and only associated with failure and blame. 

Another issue I have observed is that only specific individuals become qualified to conduct AARs. While this ensures objectivity, it is going to be far more difficult for someone external to a task (and possibly with limited functional insight and credibility) to unpick the truth about why things happened in the way they did.

The sort of self-managed routine debriefing that I have in mind is particularly prevalent in fast-jet aviation (and also special forces, although I have less personal insight here). I believe that there are two reasons for that. The first is the dangerous nature of the operating environment, in which failing to learn from experience can have up close and personal consequences; can we afford not to debrief? 

The second is that, as a result of the first reason, an organisational culture has developed in fast-jet aviation where debriefing has simply become the norm. On the Red Arrows, there is also a third reason, which is the training burden. With a 33% turnover rate of display pilots, the team needs the ability to achieve a rapid continuous improvement every year, and it is the employment of an iterative learning cycle that empowers this; each debrief provides the learning and the focus for the next sortie.

A culture of learning

Why do organisations fail to learn? One major barrier is the investment of time and effort required. It’s another credit into the bank of one’s experience and you simply don’t know if or when the future debit will be required, which makes it difficult to justify the investment in the first place. It’s more fun to do stuff than spend time planning. 

The same is true for learning, only 100 times more so. At least planning and briefing offer quick wins. They will shortly be followed by execution, when the benefits of a good plan and brief should immediately become obvious. Investing in learning is the same as investing in non-technical training and skill acquisition – it’s a leap of faith.

For that reason, when faced with competing priorities for our time, learning is an easy one to move down the list below the next delivery. Culture can also be a significant barrier. We have done extensive work in the Middle and Far East. As one travels further East from Europe, one starts to observe increasing deference to age and seniority, something which can be very positive in a family or a community.

However, the way in which that can play out in practice in the professional environment is that nobody challenges upwards or tells the boss bad news. This is not ideal; the boss is the last person to ever find out about the impending disaster. We have done a lot of work with the British oil industry in Aberdeen. On average, the offshore element of the UK oil industry seems to be dominated by tough, middle-aged men. They are exactly the sort of people you need to do difficult, demanding work in dangerous conditions. But they are perhaps not the best cross section for doing a bit of soul searching about where they need to improve.

Add in organisational demographics, language issues, ego and hierarchy, and there are a lot of good reasons not to prioritise some of the difficult conversations required to make learning from experience into a reality. However, if you don’t actively learn from experience, how will you stop yourself from making the same mistakes next time as last time? 

Lots of organisations talk about being learning organisations and learning from experience, but you have to do something to capture the learning, otherwise you just get better by osmosis, because you’re older and you’ve done it before. 

In high-performance environments, people don’t just talk about learning and continuous improvement; they actually do something to make it happen.

Justin Hughes is managing director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy that partners with organisations committed to high performance. Before founding Mission Excellence, Justin was a military fighter pilot with the UK Royal Air Force, becoming the executive officer of the Red Arrows, with whom he flew over 250 displays worldwide.

Extracted from The Business of Excellence by Justin Hughes (Bloomsbury, RRP £25/ £21.99 eBook).

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