What Lean Startups can Learn from the US Army: Lessons Learned from “Lessons Learned” Meetings to Maximize Organizational Learning

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By Brinkley Warren

There is one interesting tool for rapid experiential learning that we should consider whenever the stakes are high. It’s used in many public service agencies of the US government now, and it’s a formal method called “After Action Reviews” (AARs). This is where the idea of the “lessons learned” meetings actually came from — the US Army in the 1970s. The main idea here is the importance of experience and experimentation in learning and driving strategic change. After each military mission, the Army uses a 4-step process to run their lessons learned meetings, and I think it makes sense to explore how Lean Startup methodology might help to install better AARs into the organization to improve strategic execution over time. The whole point of an AAR is to transform learning into action — to reflect, and improve continuously, and to speed up this learning over time. That’s the lean startup. It’s that simple, but it’s not easy.

Any leader who wants to unlock scalable growth and disruptive innovation can do so by looking to lean startup culture within their organization. At Lean Monitor, we teach lean startup methodology to be driven by a key unit of learning called the Lean Startup Sprint — so AARs play a critical role in this process, but in the Lean Startup Movement we ¬†don’t call them AARs, we have better names ūüôā ¬† Lean startup expert Dr. Francisco Palao’s has an excellent post about it here.¬†

At the end of each Lean Startup Sprint, the startup team pauses and has an AAR, where the focus is not on performance, but on validated learning and improvement priorities. A key capability is the discipline gained from this process. It’s about developing a cadence with your startup team members, speaking the same language, seeing the desired end-state, speeding up the feedback loops — and it works.

Therefore, key in all of this is learning from early failures.¬†The executive leadership of the organization should set a standard to celebrate failure on the road to success. Failure should not be a Scarlett letter but a badge of honor. If you haven’t stumbled it means you aren’t flying yet.

So this spirit of the AAR is critical in lean startups. The AAR is an opportunity for the organization to be more nimble by maximizing learning and aligning experience and experimentation with strategic objects….all while becoming more customer-focused, more disciplined, and also to have the kind of team¬†camaraderie¬†and startup culture that is require to continue to innovate and produce scalable growth.

There is a sense of a higher purpose, there is freedom where anyone and everyone on the team can make CEO-level decisions and leave their personal mark on the organizational culture every single day. This kind of active participation, equanimity, reciprocity, discipline, mutual respect, collective passion, and celebration of diversity centered on service to others is the real reason why GEN-Y’s top talent is attracted to startups. It’s not the salary, it’s the empowerment. Give people the chance to manufacture innovative impact in ways aligned with their own personal passions and goals, and you’ll be a winning firm in the World of Tomorrowland.

The role of the executive leader is to ensure that the team follows the best practices of AARs during Lean Startup sprints, such as staying focused on the customer from the beginning and testing to find the best business model and product-market-fit. Startup teams must feel free to create their own environment to immerse themselves in. The executive leader should allow startup teams to design their own working space, to reconfigure it, repaint, draw on the walls, etc. so that the team is able to immerse themselves in the future worlds the are working to create.

Firms of tomorrowland will require new dashboard monitoring solutions that are more aligned with the mission of manufacturing disruptive innovation for scalable growth. It will be important to focus on the metrics that matter the most and cut through the noise of the vanity metrics. That’s a big value proposition that we talk about at my company LeanMonitor.com.

The working space of corporate environments in the future will be more like studios than offices. With each team creating a unique cultural habitat. A major challenge for many command and control type organizational cultures will be to let go and let the spirit of innovation flourish without trying to control it too much. The most successful leaders will have the best stories of failure to tell about. The best teams will have a pervading sense of enthusiasm about them surrounding lessons learned and how those lessons align with strategy.

A challenge is to become more disciplined. Here is more about AARs….

1.  What did we set out to do? (what were the goals and objectives of this mission)

2.  What happened? (just the facts, at each phase of the mission)

3. ¬†Why did it happen? ¬†(what went right, what went wrong, what doesn’t meet our expectations?)

4. What are we going to do next time? (what will we change in our planning and processes, what will we keep the same?)

What’s critical here is that the Army recommends teams spend 30% of the time on the first question, and many startup teams jump right to the last 2 questions and jump to conclusions about cause and effect. The focus is about knowing what happened and reflecting on it…..not finding blame and diving deep into cause>effect.

The Army conducts AARs very regularly — it is not once a month, it is a continuous thing that becomes a “state of mind.” ¬†The Army also suggests the importance of conducting AARs right after the mission is over in order for everyone to still have fresh ideas and memories related to the experience and the experiments that they were working on.

This is why having the lessons learned meetings on Friday may be better than doing them on Mondays in your startup.

Leadership expert and Harvard business professor David Garvin has researched learning organizations and what makes a great learning organization. In his research of AARs and lessons learned meetings, he made a few key discoveries we should keep in mind.

1. ¬†Facilitation is Key — there should be an outside facilitator that can create a flat atmosphere and help conduct AARs. An AAR should not be facilitated by a key member of the mission.

2. Vulnerability is Key — leaders must be willing to discuss their failures and have candor so that the whole team feels comfortable to share

Peter Senge is another leadership expert who popularized the notion of a Learning Organization back in the early 90s. He proves that almost every single attempt by corporations of all sizes to introduce AARs successfully into the organization — fails.

Why? He says because the corporation or leadership tries to reduce the living practice of AARs into a sterile technique. They turn them into performance reviews instead of making it a part of culture. Sharing results in an open way doesn’t happen. So what’s wrong with lessons learned in big enterprise environments?

In my experience working with startups and big organizations to Go Lean — I’ve decided that there is often a critical capability often missing, and that is…SYSTEMS THINKING. This is an area where I’m very strong and so I’ve made the mistake of assuming that others are strong in this way also, but more often than not in a large organization, people can’t see the forrest for the trees.

As an example, I was working with a marketing team to observe and assess how they were working to bring a disruptive and innovative and creative new product to market. Well — the product flopped, and they conduced a lessons learned meeting, and among the other problems I observed throughout the whole process, the most telling was the AAR. Why? Because the people who actually worked on the product were not in the meeting!

You see, in the traditional waterfalls approach to product development inside large organizations, there are different units and departments that all affect the product launch, and so even though the marketing team was following a more agile approach to customer development and making use of lean principles, the product was actually not produced in a lean way AT ALL. In the end, everyone thought they were working in a cross-functional team, but actually they were working in a cross-dysfunctional team!

At the AAR after the flop, I was asking why the developers weren’t in the room, why was the operations and logistics person in the room, why wasn’t the retail person in the room? ¬†Why wasn’t procurement engaged in the process? ¬†Through this process I learned that the marketing and product managers didn’t really have a full grasp of the big picture, about how the holistic system was working, and why it was important to change it or transcend it in order to achieve positive results.

Whenever there are multiple units involved with the product launch, the handoff is critical. Imagine you’re on a football team where the running back and the quarterback don’t practice handing-off the ball. What happens? The ball gets fumbled! It doesn’t matter if you’re the best quarterback in the company, if you can’t hand the ball off or pass it without having a fumble or interception, then you’re not a good quarterback. Quarterbacks have to see the whole picture. In fact, the whole team needs to see the whole picture in order to be successful.

It’s all about facilitating a lessons learned meeting where cross-functional teams can see things from a holistic perspective instead of a compartmentalized perspective.

So, lessons learned about lessons learned:

  • Increase frequency of AARs
  • Come away from the AAR with a few big ideas, not a laundry list or report
  • Collect data and measure from the very beginning (See LeanMonitor.com)
  • Celebrate failures on the road to success, and successes amidst failure

Scholars worked with the Israeli military to research the affect on learning from failure vs. learning from success. The teams who discussed and learned from BOTH failures and successes more frequently, had more positive results in a shorter period of time.

Finally, the notion of deliberate practice is important. Star performers, research shows, are made — not born. Experts become experts by elite experiential practice (i.e. — 10,000 hours). And the key is in HOW they practice. There is a big difference between coming in on Monday and saying, “I want to do a better job at customer interviews this week.” versus coming in with a real specific and deliberate goal, “I want to increase my customer interview total by 10% while reducing the total number of invalidated hypothesis per interview by a factor of 5 while reducing time per interview by 30% compared to last week.” This is why to be deliberate in your practice, you need support tools that help you to measure and and track and monitor and manage your progress. It’s also why you need coaching.

The greatness of AARs is that it flattens the organization so that even the top leaders are accountable to lessons learned. There is a sense of a higher purpose, there is freedom where anyone and everyone on the team can make CEO-level decisions and leave their personal mark on the organizational culture every single day. This kind of active participation, equanimity, reciprocity, discipline, mutual respect, collective passion, and celebration of diversity centered on service to others is the real reason why the World’s most talented knowledge workers are attracted more and more into startups. It’s not the salary, it’s the empowerment. Give people the chance to manufacture innovative impact in ways aligned with their own personal passions and goals, and you’ll be a winning firm in the World of Tomorrowland.

The role of the executive leader is to ensure that the team follows the best practices of AARs during Lean Startup sprints, such as staying focused on the customer from the beginning and testing to find the best business model and product-market-fit.

Firms of tomorrowland will require new dashboard monitoring solutions that are more aligned with the mission of manufacturing disruptive innovation for scalable growth. It will be important to focus on the metrics that matter the most and cut through the noise of the vanity metrics.

So there you go….the US Army and Lean Startups can drastically improve the learning capacity of your organization no matter how big or small.

Do you know of any good examples of organizations embracing a culture of rapid prototyping?  Leave a comment !

 



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