Learning to succeed.

Shifting focus: victoria ante mortem

I’d like to think that every strategy I help to develop gets seamlessly delivered and transports my client to an idyllic life in the happy, sun-drenched uplands of sustained prosperity. Sometimes though, circumstances intervene, as with one occasion a few years back when, having completed a strategy engagement that I thought had gone extremely well, I got a call nine months later.

It transpired that one of the major strategic initiatives that had emerged from my prior work with them, about which everyone had seemed positive and excited, had ground to a halt and was getting nowhere fast. With the help of some advice from me, and an extraordinary amount of hard work from the newly appointed project leader and her team, they pulled it around – victory from the jaws of death. And by the year-end, had already started to see some of the benefits coming through.

“I’m impressed by how much commitment and effort you got from the team,” I told her, during our wrap-up conversation. “It can’t have been easy, having inherited them in those circumstances.”

“I don’t think that was all my doing,” she modestly replied, “I think a big part of it was that they all desperately wanted to avoid going through yet another post-mortem.”

Hers, like a lot of businesses, typically put failing projects through something more akin to an inquisition than a learning review, hence her predecessor’s sudden departure and her team’s anxiety. As a short-term motivation technique, it did appear quite effective. As a long-term approach for retaining learning, engagement and talent, it fell woefully short.

No lessons had been learned from the initial failure, apart from who to fire. There would be no systematic improvements to stop other projects going the same way. To be fair, there rarely are from post-mortems, because of the beliefs, blame and biases, the high personal stakes, that start colouring everyone’s perceptions when things go wrong. Which is why failure is rarely as good a teacher as success.

Conversely, the ante-mortem (more accurate Latin, I’m told, than “pre-mortem”), can be extremely useful. Starting a project with a future-scenario exercise, of “how this project went so badly wrong”, can be an excellent source of learning: of risks to address, pitfalls to avoid, and so forth. There’s no blame or bias to cloud judgement, because the project hasn’t failed (yet). Plus, you get all of the learning from all of the previous setbacks and failures, that all of the people present have experienced, without the cost and inconvenience of having to fail again.

Even better though, and even more underused, is the post-victoriam. The review of success. In most organisations, a successful project concludes with a celebration, a round of appreciation, of thanks and ideally, recognition of the parties involved. It’s the twin of the post-mortem in many ways, with the same focus on people, on blame, but in a good way. But as with the post-mortem, the celebration rarely captures the deeper, systemic learning, specifically: what went well, why, and how can we replicate it in future.

The lessons you can learn from success are far more valuable than those you can learn from failure. Failure can merely be avoided. Success can be repeated, again and again and again.

So next time you have a success, do more than simply recognising the achievement and thanking those involved. Turn out the inquisitors and do a genuine review, tease out what contributed to the success, what should be repeated and replicated from now on. It will be a far better use of their time than another post-mortem.

As our Latin speaker might say, victoria ante mortem est melius quam luctus post mortem