Og Mandino once said “Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.” I think every success offers a lot of valuable lessons, too, and I know for a fact that most managers don’t spend nearly enough focus on how to derive the most from either.
First, let’s go back to to the basics. Way back, in fact, to the first management class you took if you were a business major, probably called Principles of Management or Intro to Management. If you didn’t take this class, what I’m about to share with you can save you all the trouble because this is what management is all about. The process of management involves four ongoing activities. Four verbs, in other words – Planning, organizing, implementing, and controlling.
We first develop the plan (or vision, or goal, whatever label you prefer) for what we want to accomplish, we gather the resources necessary to accomplish the goal (people, money, materials, etc.), we implement the plan (the execution, launch, or actual “doing” of the plan), and then we go back and compare the original plan with the results in order to see what worked and what didn’t (the control stage). The findings can then be used to develop more plans and better plans in the future (back to the plan step again). Plan, organize, implement and control.
You may see right away how useful the control stage is. Knowing first-hand, from your own actions, what works and what doesn’t can be of great value and can save us time and other resources on future strategies. The military knows this very well. After every mission they run, they do what they call an After Action Review in which they compare the outcome to the plan and immediately go to work figuring out how to do it better next time.
But, amazingly, managers don’t often see it this way. Often the control stage is conducted in a very cursory fashion, if at all. There may be a number of reasons why this is, but here are three I’ve observed.
1. It’s more fun to “Do” than to “study.”
A lot of managers want to be thought of as “doers” rather than planners or analyzers of plans. There is more glamor, respect, what-have-you, associated with doing than planning. The planning stages, and even “planners” themselves, are often viewed as the lower-function analysts, where being out there, “in the field”, “where the action is” often carries with it a good deal more prestige than does the tedious atmosphere of studying the historical nature of the plans, even if they are the manager’s own. Really top performers in any field love the after-action reviews or the control stage of the planning process. Think of how football teams put such emphasis on studying game films both before and after they meet their opponents. Knowing what they did wrong can help them execute better next time, just as knowing what they do well can tell them exactly what to keep doing in the future. Those that prefer implementing or “doing” over planning and controlling should remember that those two tools can actually make implementing more rewarding.
2. Nobody likes to be “Wrong.”
If the review of the outcomes of the strategy consists mostly of the manager being reminded what a strategic genius he or she is, they might be willing to devote some of their time to it. Unfortunately, having their genius revealed isn’t always what happens.
Looking at an outcome and having its results validate what a good decision-maker the manager is one thing. Being able to actively, objectively look at an outcome and discuss where or why a decision the manager made or approved of went “wrong” is another matter. If a review of the outcomes suggest the manager was more lucky than good, that could be a teensy bit uncomfortable. So they might be a little less inclined to want to engage in it. These managers need to learn that the truth only hurts if it should, glean the lessons from the experience, and work to be better next time.
3. It’s on to the next big thing.
In defense of the manager we’re chastising for not wanting to devote time to the control stage of the process, it may not be entirely his or her fault. After all, managers get paid for results. And often the better today’s results are simply means you’re only a hero for today, and you’re expected to deliver something bigger and better tomorrow. So it’s on to the next big thing, whether it’s your motivation or the boss’s.
Granted, “results” are what matter most, but what if a careful study of what worked and what didn’t work about the current strategy or project could yield ideas that led to not only the next big success, but a system that helped ensure success that could be replicated? Now you’re not just talking about results, but potentially long-term returns that could be exponential.
To get the most from every strategy, study the outcomes intently with the goal of learning what worked and what didn’t. That way, you’ve got experience you can leverage into more valuable implementation the next time!
If you think education is expensive, try estimating the cost of ignorance.”— Howard Gardner