How the Best Get Better: Inspect and Adapt

How the Best Get Better: Inspect and Adapt

The best teams always ask the same question: “how can we get better?”

In his book, Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform IndustriesSafi Bahcall describes three levels of team maturity:

  • Level 0 Teams don’t analyze failures at all
  • Level 1 Teams assess how they may have failed to meet market needs (outcome mindset)
  • Level 2 Teams probe why they made choices (system mindset). They analyze both successes and failures. They recognize that good outcomes don’t always impact good decisions (got lucky), just as bad outcomes don’t always imply bad decisions (played the odds well). They analyze the quality of decisions not just the quality of outcomes.

The Level 2 mindset is what makes great teams rise above the rest: they constantly evaluate what they do and how they can do it better. After every training event and mission, Navy SEAL Teams conduct an after-action review (AAR). The purpose of this session is to discuss the group’s plan, what actually happened, and what they can learn from it. These sessions bear a striking resemblance to retrospectives, a common practice among agile software development teams. At a retrospective, the team reflects on what went well during its last development cycle and identifies opportunities to improve moving forward. While the format of these sessions varies, you’ll find several common elements across them: structured conversations about decisions, actions, and outcomes to foster continuous improvement in teams.

Whether you call them after-action reviews (AARs), retrospectives, or something else, there are three principles to keep in mind when facilitating these sessions.

#1 – Good ideas can come from anyone on the team

One of the most important features of AARs and retrospectives is that they are team-driven rather than leader-driven. Everyone has an equal seat at the table, regardless of rank. Junior and senior teammates have unique perspectives to contribute to the conversation and their ideas should be evaluated for their merit. To ensure that all insights surface, the facilitator must ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak and feels comfortable doing so.

While all team members should show support for those who offer suggestions, managers especially must monitor their reactions as team members offer negative commentary. Any defensive verbal response or body language from an authority figure will deter teammates from offering candid feedback, compromising the integrity of the process. While managers can use these sessions to provide advice, the team itself should lead the critique.

#2 – Outcomes do not always signal decision quality 

In complex and ambiguous environments, outcomes are sometimes a poor indicator of the quality of the decisions that preceded them. For example, pursuing a certain customer might be the right “bet” based on all the available information, but the opportunity may not pan out due to changing circumstances or other unknowns. Conversely, sometimes teams get lucky and bad decisions result in fortuitous outcomes. Modifying the team’s decision-making approach based on chance outcomes will lead to poor decisions in the future. A productive AAR focuses on the quality of the team’s decisions, not just what they would have done differently in hindsight.

To facilitate the discussion, frame questions around how the team makes decisions rather than just the outcomes of those decisions. Instead of asking if the team achieved the intended result, ask, “Did we make the best decision given the information we had at the time?” If the consensus is yes but the result was not positive, follow-up with, “What information would have helped us make a better decision” and “how can we arm ourselves with that information next time?” Teams can continuously improve their decision-making ability by critiquing their decision-making processes.

#3 – Reflection should be a habit, no matter how the team is doing 

While most teams will hold a postmortem when a plan goes completely awry, the best teams are not triggered to change their ways based on a single particularly bad outcome – continuous improvement is part of their ethos and is inherent in all that they do. High-performing teams integrate reflection and adaptation into their routines. Whether it is after every mission or after every sprint, dedicating time for these discussions at a regular cadence enables teams to tune and adjust their way of working to achieve the best possible results.

The bottom line: The best teams get better through continuous self-inspection and adaptation. Facilitating regular AARs in which everyone feels comfortable speaking and teams focus on processes, not outcomes help teams achieve peak performance.


By Jessica Reif  and John Previtera