“Gutsiest move I ever saw, Mav!”
Remember the scene in “Top Gun” when Charlie is reviewing previous dogfights and is debriefing Maverick’s latest engagement with the bogies? Charlie says, “The F-14 is defensive, he has a chance to bug out right here…better to retire and save your aircraft than push a bad position…. YOU MADE A BAD CHOICE. The encounter was a victory but we show it as an example of what not to do.”
In front of God and everybody Charlie tells Mav he goofed up but got lucky. Ouch, Mav you just got “owned” by a non-pilot technocrat.
The only saving grace is his buddy whispering “Gustiest move I ever saw Mav.”
Among military aircrews debriefs take on a serious tone that may be more important than actual flight. I have been in mission debriefs that have lasted longer than the actual flights. The debrief is not meant to be a pat on the back. Even if the mission was a total success, there is always room for improvement. As Viper says, “We’ll make you better.” The mission debrief can be a painful experience meant to teach lessons, learn from our mistakes and become better practitioners of the art. The well-executed mission debriefing is candid, thorough, and at times, brutal. It has no respect for rank and experience and is excruciatingly detailed. There is no room for excuses and whining. It takes a significant ego not to be crushed by the criticism. Fortunately, most pilots or elite warriors have confidence levels ranging from a quiet confidence to downright arrogance and recognize the only way to make a blade sharp is a grinding stone. But what about your team? Can you make them better with the debrief technique? YOU BET!
The after action analysis, is common to many elite organizations particularly the Navy Seals. For some organizations, failure can result in missed sales quotas, falling to meet production milestones or the dreaded fall in the price of company stock. In a military organization people get killed and battles get lost.
If our organizations fail to learn from not only the mistakes but also the reasons something worked well, we are condemned to re-make those same mistakes or fail to capture strategies for continued success. Even if we happened to get lucky and succeed in a business plan, a successful “lessons learned” evaluation ensures that good fortune turns into a winning strategy for the next gambit.
A well thought out debriefing of any activity, and ensuing candid discussion of performance, is absolutely essential to the growth of your team. You can’t fly your team to the edge of the envelope if you don’t learn any lessons from your mistakes. For your team’s debrief to be effective several components are essential:
- Be candid and honest but not personal in your evaluations.
- Set a tone where every person or action is subject to the same scrutiny regardless of rank or organizational position.
- Adjust your candor to enhance learning but not crush the spirit. You may not have a team where everyone has that “type A pilot” confidence. But the growth of every member is important and a feedback loop is essential.
- Use discretion and be differential to senior leaders, but don’t sugar coat their miscues. They need to learn as well. Sometimes, nicknames can take the hierarchy out of the equation or take the “rank” off the table. The best leaders can take criticism provided with respect to their position but better to know how your leader reacts to criticism before sacrificing yourself on the altar of honesty. (Refer to a previous article on the use of nicknames to promote team cohesion and build esprit.)
- Ensure the audience knows that defensive behavior; excuses for poor performance and “whining” simply aren’t acceptable and re-remind your team that this isn’t personal. I know a fighter squadron that wears a patch on their sleeve that says, “No slack.”
- Praise good performance but don’t give false praise…this is real life, real business and not every player gets a trophy for showing up.
- If some strategy worked, don’t just give high fives all around and order pizza. Go into detail about what worked right, and try to adapt your strategy to capture this best practice every time. This way if something serendipitous happened or luck smiled upon your decisions, you won’t have to rely on dumb luck next time.
- Remember usually more lessons are learned from mistakes, than learned from success. Fail forward.
- Take notes and publish some “lessons learned” to capture best practices. Leave out names just relate the facts. No need to rub it in too hard. Your teammates now know that they messed up and should correct their mistakes.
- When the critique is over whatever was said, unless captured in the notes, stays in that room. Tomorrow is another day, another mission, another business plan, and ANOTHER CHANCE TO EXCELL.
- Experience is the best teacher. Most of us learn more from mistakes than the then success.
When a young pilot graduates from training, she is often told, “Today when you pinned on those shiny new wings, you were issued two bags. One bag is good luck, and this bag is full. The other bag is skill and it is empty. If you want to lead a long life in the aviation business you’d better ensure that your bag of skill gets full before your bag of luck goes empty.” Your organizational goal should be to use the debrief to build the team skill sets up before your good luck runs out.
We all want our organizations to be successful. As a leader you need to ensure your team learns from every engagement, sales negotiation or contract won or lost. Use the Top Gun debrief as your strategy to bring out the best in your people. It is important. As they say in Top Gun,
“The trophy for second place is hanging in the bathroom.”