Recently I read the book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle. This is a must read for entrepreneurs and executive leadership teams. In his book, Coyle refers to Pixar’s “Brain Trust” and the Navy Seals “After Action Reviews” as activities businesses of all shapes and sizes should model if they desire to grow and reach their potential.

“The Brain Trust is the most important thing we do by far. It depends on completely candid feedback. All our movies suck at first. The Brain Trust is where we figure out why they suck, and it’s also where they start not to suck.”

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation

After Action Reviews

The Navy Seals make use of the After Action Reviews, a gathering that takes place immediately after a mission or training session. Just like in the Brain Trust, the team members gather, ask uncomfortable questions, and analyze problems together. Fun is not the intent. Instead, the meetings are geared towards effectiveness. In other words, what happened during the mission, what did we do well, and how will we improve for next time?

In Coyle’s book, he outlines some of the key questions the Navy Seals ask during these After Action Reviews:

  • What did each team member do and why?
  • What were our intended results?
  • What were our actual results?
  • What caused our results?
  • Where did we fail?
  • What will we do the same next time?
  • What will we do differently next time?

Making It Personal

Continual improvement is a principle embedded into all of our core values at Tiller. Over the last 10 years, we have made concerted efforts to learn from our mistakes and missed opportunities, and get better with each day and with each project. In fact, I believe this attitude has helped us get to where we are today. However, I found this easier to prioritize and facilitate earlier on when our team was smaller and I was personally involved in every project. As we’ve grown, I’ve noticed that this is harder to do across different project teams that are now led by one of our dedicated project managers. I’ve found myself asking the questions:

  • How do we ensure lessons learned on one project or with one project team are shared with all other project teams?
  • How do we ensure that these lessons are not just identified, but actually actioned? After all, simply saying something could be better is not the same as actually making it better.
  • How do we ensure that this process of reviewing and identifying lessons learned is injected into our process so it isn’t missed?

To answer these questions, I sensed we needed more structure. But, admittedly, I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about building and formalizing this structure. That is, until I read Coyle’s book and learned about the After Action Reviews. We are certainly not a Navy Seals team, but we do value many of the same things. Like the Navy Seals, we too want to learn from each mission and improve for next time. If the After Action Review was working well for the Navy Seals, why not try it at Tiller?

Brandon (our Chief Design Officer) and I set out to design our own version of the After Action Review. We started with the questions above, but then reworded and expanded to better suit our culture, projects, and the metrics we are most adamant about measuring. We created a template and added After Action Review into our process, ensuring a project manager cannot close a project without completing this crucial exercise and sharing findings across the company. With all our project team’s learnings being clearly documented and accessible to everyone, we can more easily pull out the action items from each and use these reviews for individual and company wide training.

We’ve only been using the After Action Reviews for a few months now, but even in that short time we have already seen the impact not only on the project themselves, but on our process as a whole. Now that we have built the structure and made this review process more scalable, it’s my job to continually review and make it even better.

If you want to learn more about After Action Reviews and investing in culture, I recommend The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle.

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