Source: Forbes.com/ Brent Gleeson
Success on any battlefield requires effective strategic planning, leadership, execution and debriefing. In the Navy SEAL teams, our planning and debriefing (After-Action Review) procedures are paramount to defeating the enemy and supporting our learning culture. Constant feedback loops are a strategic imperative for applying lessons learned for continual improvement and adaptation.
The planning and debriefing models outlined in this article can be used for both long-term and short-term execution. In a similar fashion to literal battlefields, the modern battlefield of business requires both. From my experience as a business leader building high-growth companies and in working with organizations across the globe, even the most well-intentioned leaders often skip a few critical steps when it comes to strategic planning, debriefing and the application of insights learned.
The most elite special operations teams and high-performance business organizations use the following steps for planning their missions.
Seven Steps for Effective Planning
Step 1: Identify the Specific Objective
Whether the goal is capturing a high-value target in Syria or landing your ideal new client, the objective must be concise, quantifiable, time-bound and support the strategic initiative (the organization’s overall mission).
Step 2: Understand Blockages
Collaborate with the team on the elements that are under your control and ones that aren’t. First, focus on constraints you have control over and mitigate those risks as much as possible. Then, list aspects of the mission plan that are outside the team’s immediate control, unknows, etc. You’ll address these again when planning for contingencies.
Step 3: List Resources
What resources do we have to execute this plan? Who has access to them? Identify people on the team (or outside the team) that can gather the resources necessary for mission success.
Step 4: Apply Lessons Learned
Assuming you’ve documented key lessons learned from similar missions (or projects), discuss how those lessons apply to the current plan. What have we learned in the past? How will we avoid similar mistakes? What worked well that we can apply to this strategy?
Step 5: Actions (What, When, Who)
Make a list of all the actions that must be executed leading up to and during the “mission.” Be specific about what they are and make them time bound. Assign a delivery date and the persons that need to be responsible, accountable, consulted and informed.
Step 6: Red Teaming
This part is important and often skipped. High-performance teams ask the questions: why won’t this plan work? Where are the gaps? What haven’t we thought of? For larger strategic plans, we often recommend that the team developing the plans assign a small committee outside of their group to poke holes in their plan, then apply feedback and insights to make any adjustments necessary.
Step 7: Develop Contingencies (Key Indicators, Associated Actions)
This is where the “what ifs” come in to play. When identifying the elements out of your control and discussing the unknowns, make appropriate contingency plans – if this happens then you do the following. List key indicators for when the time comes to course correct to a contingency and the actions associated with that plan.
You can build a simple one-page template for this process to be used during any planning session. In effective meetings (where people come well-prepared), teams can learn to use this model to develop a solid plan in fifteen minutes, as opposed to days or weeks.
Once the plan is finalized, its time for everyone to execute!
Win, lose or somewhere in the middle, all missions must be debriefed. In the SEAL Teams, we refer to this process as an After-Action Review. After any training scenario or real-world mission, we perform this critical function as part of our learning and continuous improvement culture. Many teams debrief, but without executing ALL of the critical steps, key lessons are missed. Success factors aren’t properly applied, and the same mistakes are made in the future.
Follow these steps for a well-executed After-Action Review:
The Rapid Debriefing Checklist
Step 1: Schedule a Time and Place
Schedule a specific time and place for the debrief. Make sure everyone is aware of the start and end times…and stick to them! When applicable, ensure the event is in everyone’s calendar.
Step 2: Create a Learning Environment
During AARs in the SEAL Teams, we leave rank and emotion at the door. We engage in respectful conflict, transparency and honesty. We have little time for games or politics. High-performing teams create a culture that gives everyone a voice regardless of rank, title or tenure. The highest-ranking person in the room should kick off the meeting and start with what they feel they personally could have improved upon. This sets the tone for accountability and openness.
Step 3: Ask the Five Critical Questions
- What were we trying to accomplish? What was the main objective?
- Where did we hit (or miss) our objective?
- What was the root cause of our result? (Ask the five WHYs)
- As a team, what should we stop, start or continue doing? (Be specific)
- What are our key lessons learned? (List up to three)
Always end the debrief on a positive note!
Wait, you’re not done yet. Ensure that all notes from the meeting are documented and distributed to the team and key people in the organization within three days of the debrief. We recommend housing all AAR notes in a centre of excellence that can be accessed by all appropriate teams and people.
When used regularly, and properly, this process transforms mindset and culture toward high-performance and continual improvement. So, get after it!