Transformational Change: Reflect and refine
In my first blog, I introduced the idea that if organisations are seeking transformational change, they must address organisational culture in order to enable this transformation. Change, despite many of the horror stories we hear, can be more energising, humane, and fun. I introduced 7 key attributes that must be part of your transformational change agenda in order to thrive.. This blog expands on the final idea #7 – reflecting and refining.
This final step that underpins it all is probably the hardest step of all. Progress can only really be seen and appreciated when you are able to pause, look back, and reflect. Because of the pace of change and the desire to move on to the next thing, many organisations skip this step of reflecting. This step need not take a lot of time, only the discipline of consistency to take stock of what has happened, what worked well, and what needs refining.
The change process is never linear and never perfect, you must continually reflect and refine as part of the process.
This is also key to creating success and resilience in the change process so that people can celebrate progress and achievements along the way.
This means this last step is never-ending. Rather, it should be considered the hygiene factor of any change process, like the brushing of one’s teeth everyday. Because, let’s face it, you’re never done brushing your teeth right? Rather, you must wake up everyday and brush twice a day…for the rest of your life.
But why invest in this step? The best known illustration of the benefits of reflecting and refining can be seen from the US military’s creation of the After Action Review (AAR) in 1981. An AAR is simply defined as a process that reviews performance after an initiative is completed – paying attention to mistakes or errors and how to learn from them to avoid them in the future. The stakes are high for mistakes in the military setting (translation: life or death), so the founders of the process at National Training Center (NTC) take the process very seriously.
The training program “treats every action as an opportunity for learning—about what to do but also, more importantly, about how to think.” This method has had overwhelming success as evidenced in combat training results. Afterall, “the group does not consider a lesson to be truly learned until it is successfully applied and validated.” Many corporate organisations have since adopted the AAR, leveraging its principles and templates to conduct their own AARs, but with disappointing results. So what is going on here, and how can we reflect and refine in a way that provides meaningful results?
Where organisations get stuck:
Reflection becomes a check the box activity: As described in this HBR case study, leaders treat the AAR more as a noun (e.g. a meeting or report) than a verb (e.g. a continual action of learning). Rather, they leverage AAR questions by answering them in a meeting and most often, documenting them in a report. They engage in the process as a check the box activity, then file the report away to never be looked at again. The learnings become shallow and forgotten, and though the learnings have been technically captured, they have not been applied, leading organisations to repeat mistakes again in the future.
Reflections overly focus on the outcomes rather than the process taken to get to those outcomes. Errors and mistakes in strategizing, planning, and execution almost always have to do with human judgment and behaviour. In times where errors were due to broken processes or technology, resolving these errors still rarely creates success. In knowledge-based organisations, most change failures result from poor communication and power struggles and politics that lead to stifled collaboration and decisions taken in siloes. Reflecting on process can be a slippery slope to blame, which is why many organisations tend to steer clear. But rather than blame, we must be able to better objectively review how our human behaviours may be interfering with the process of obtaining meaningful outcomes.
Leaders don’t like the idea of non-completion. Most western business leaders like to finish things and move on. The brain is rewarded with a hit of dopamine, the brain’s way of rewarding you for finishing something, and we become addicted to this hit. But transformational change is not a quickly completed task, rather the reflecting and refining step must occur across a number of years, sometimes even decades. The discipline of committing to this process, even though it may be considered boring for fast paced leaders, is the secret sauce. This long-term orientation is rewarded with sustainable results and successful transformation.
We focus on too many problems. AARs should focus on the few lessons that make the greatest impact. Ones that can be taken immediately are prioritised so that people can remember them and begin applying them as soon as possible.
Ideas on where to start:
Start small and dive in. If your organisation is either in process of launching a small initiative or has just completed one, experiment with the AAR process (here is a great study and AAR template to follow).
Create a structure by forming a team that will own the organisation’s AAR process, continuously meet and discuss, and perhaps even consult with other teams that are in process of launching initiatives to share the themes and learnings. Focus on application as teams are planning and launching initiatives by asking “how will this team apply the lessons learned to this new project?”
Focus on individual learning. When reflecting and refining via the AAR process, take individual accountability for applying the lessons with the next project by asking yourself, “what do I need to do differently next time? What behaviours or mindsets do I need to unlearn based on what I know now? What is my greatest obstacle to applying these lessons?”
In our example of creating a customer centric organisation, this could mean forming an AAR group. This group would facilitate and capture the outcomes of all customer centric oriented projects completed and consult with teams launching future projects to identify themes and patterns that are contributing to habitual mistakes. Over time, this team could also start to train leaders across the organisation to conduct their own AAR to embed this process into the culture. After all, reflecting and refining in the transformational change process must be embedded in the culture in order to sustain results overtime.
Taking a more modern and relevant approach to transformational change is your best chance at making the changes stick and energising people around topics that should matter dearly to them – how they and others treat each other and behave at work. Let us make change accessible, sustainable, and fun!