With the new year comes an opportunity for teams to look back—and forward—to establish a framework for continuous improvement in the coming year.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, executive coach Rebecca Zucker explains how leaders can set their teams up for success in the new year by reflecting on past successes and failures while looking for ways to improve and innovate.
"Conducting a post-mortem — and even a pre-mortem — with your team is an opportunity to instill a learning culture, build psychological safety, enhance morale and team alignment, and improve results," Zucker writes.
According to Zucker, a post-mortem reflects on the past, while a pre-mortem looks forward to the year ahead. Zucker outlines several strategies that can help "maximize the productivity of your conversations to help you learn and set your team up for success in the year ahead."
1. Consider using external facilitators
When budgets permit, Zucker recommends using an external facilitator to lead these discussions.
"This not only frees up the team leader to be a participant (versus a facilitator), but also brings professional expertise in managing group discussions and dynamics," she writes.
In particular, Zucker notes that "a skilled professional facilitator can help modulate the emotional temperature in the room, keep the team on topic, and make sure everyone speaks and is heard by others, resulting in greater learning and clarity from these exercises."
2. Assign pre-work
Before a session, Zucker encourages leaders to provide the questions they plan on discussing a few weeks in advance, allowing team members to reflect on the questions and answer them thoughtfully.
"This will be especially helpful for introverts, who prefer to think things through before discussing them," Zucker writes. "Sharing the questions in advance will also allow people time to record their initial thoughts, while providing enough time to come back and add to them, since it's likely that not everything will come to mind in one sitting."
At the start of each session, Zucker recommends choosing a designated note-taker "to document essential parts of the discussion so that you don't lose track of key points," giving you the ability to "step back, distill learnings, and create clear actions and accountabilities going forward."
In addition, she suggests establishing ground rules as a team to set expectations for how everyone will work together during these sessions.
How to conduct a post-mortem
During these sessions, it is important provide ample time so the discussion can focus equally on the team's successes and failures.
"It's important to dig into root causes of success not only to create more opportunities for success, but also to prevent the team from coasting or taking its success for granted, which can — ironically — set the team up for failure in the future," Zucker writes.
When discussing successes, Zucker suggests asking team members several questions, including:
When discussing failures or shortcomings, Zucker suggests asking:
How to conduct a pre-mortem
These sessions "should go beyond imagining what could potentially go wrong, to using what researchers call prospective hindsight, in which the team envisions that specific successes or failures have already happened," Zucker writes.
"Putting yourself and the team in this imagined future state of success or failure being realized has shown to improve the ability to correctly pinpoint the causes of these respective outcomes by 30%," she notes.
For these sessions, leaders should ideally know the team's specific goals and initiatives for the coming year so the discussion can be more targeted.
If a team has met—or greatly exceeded—their goals, Zucker suggests asking the following questions:
If a team has fallen short of their goals, Zucker suggests asking the following questions:
1. Summarize conclusions and priorities
After each session, teams should "summarize and capture the main learnings from the sessions and what priorities these point to for the team to address."
2. Outline next steps and follow-ups
Zucker recommends creating an action plan for the team that includes initial next steps for each priority, clear ownership of those action items, and a schedule for completion.
"By articulating who will do what and by when, there should be no ambiguity about what needs to happen following these meetings, even if the next step for a particular priority is to set up another meeting to continue the discussion to determine relevant actions, due to time constraints in the initial meeting," she writes.
3. Make sure the whole team receives the summary
Finally, Zucker recommends sending a copy of the summary to the entire team, giving everyone the opportunity to make corrections and ensuring that everyone is operating with the same information and understanding.
"Learning and continuous improvement as a team require open discussion about what went well and what didn't in the prior year, as well as realistically assessing potential pitfalls and opportunities that could lead to future failure or success," Zucker writes. (Zucker, Harvard Business Review, 1/9)
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