Regularly reflecting on past failures and triumphs is what makes an organisation great.
Some years ago, I was lucky enough to find myself sitting in on a McKinsey & Co lecture. The intellect in the room was so intense I considered leaving just to free up a bit of oxygen for everyone else’s mighty brains. But then something happened that helped me realise that being clever doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart.
The speaker on stage posed the audience a question. “What,” he asked, “is the most reliable predicting factor for a company’s success in three years time?” It was as if he’d held up a sign saying “library”. Hundreds of young, fiercely brilliant minds fell silent. But not for long.
After a few seconds, the answers started to pile in. Like exuberant sixth-formers on an optional summer course, keen to impress a guest from the outside world, the brightest of minds began to hurl possible but unlikely answers towards the stage. “Natural daylight?” “Lunchtime yoga sessions?” “A 50/50 split between men and women in senior management positions?”
“No,” said the speaker, “it’s none of these.” Suspense filled the hall. What could it possibly be if not one of these brilliant ideas? “The answer is an obvious one,” said the speaker. “It’s feedback. The rigorous process of talking about what just happened, and asking how you can improve it next time.”
“Damn!” I remember thinking. I wondered if it might be something like that! I allowed myself a gentle glow of pride at having got closer to the truth than the super-brains around me.
But now, several years down the line, and after working with corporations and companies large and small on the quality of the way in which they communicate, I’m more convinced than ever that the answers to big questions are often much simpler than we think. And they’re definitely simpler than some experts, consultants and strategists might suggest.
It’s the people who do the simple things brilliantly, and the complex things simply, that get out of their own way, release the talent in their organisation and free themselves to get on with doing what they do best – be it banking or baking.
Let’s take feedback as an example. When it comes to conversations that count, in my experience it’s the businesses that aren’t afraid of admitting where they went wrong that learn more quickly and bounce back more confidently from a dip in performance, or a poorly guided strategy.
This is even the case in the event of a right royal cock-up – in fact, you might say it’s especially the case in such scenarios. If you have the nerve to face up to the ugly truth, the courage to say what needs to be said, and the sense to listen well to the most informed voices, you can soon find yourself genuinely turning a corner in much better shape than if you’d narrowly escaped whatever storm it was that blew your way.
But feedback isn’t just useful when things go wrong. The businesses I’d tip for success in three years’ time are those whose leaders are as rigorous in their conversation skills when something’s gone right as they are when it goes wrong. Truly understanding what you’re brilliant at is a rare quality. But you can only discover what your strengths are if you’re in the habit of reflecting; not for its own sake, but for the good of the next thing you do. And the next. And the next.
So, if what you’re working on now goes well, after it’s done, talk about why. And if doesn’t go well, after it’s done, talk about why.
There is, after all, no such thing as a disaster. Unless of course you neglect to learn from it.
Karl James' latest book is Say It and Solve It: Get the Results you Want from the Business Conversations that Count (Pearson).
A to-do list with personality
Most to-do list apps are fairly straightforward – you make a list, and do the stuff on it. CARROT makes things more interesting. It’s like a robot overlord that you please by getting things done. CARROT starts out not liking you very much, and you’re immediately warned not to upset it (her? him?) – just make sure you stay on top of things.