01 October 2021

Conducting an After Action Review

 "A fool despises counsel but a wise man takes it to heart."

--Confucious 

During a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting in Washington, DC on 28 September 2021, Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin was asked if the Pentagon would be reviewing the planning and implementation of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan on 30 August 2021.  

Secretary Austin replied that there would indeed be an 'AAR' or After Action Review of that operation.  "Soup to nuts," he later added.

What's an After Action Review?

An AAR is an assessment, formal and informal, conducted during or after a project that allows employees and leaders to discover (learn) what happened and why. (Standard definition)

Here are actions that might justify a scaled-to-fit AAR:*

-A telephone call with a client.

-An internal meeting.

-A sales call to a client.

-Introduction of a new product line.

-Training programs.

-A change in hiring procedures.

-The launch of a corporate-wide initiative.

-Assessing one's career.

This approach focuses on the tasks and goals to discover the "why" of outcomes. Think of an AAR as a professional discussion with emotion--to the extent possible--kept outside the room.  

(C) University of Cambridge

There are four basic questions to ask--

1. What was supposed to happen?

2. What actually happened?

3. Why was there a difference?

4. What can we learn from this?

What an AAR is not

To know what something is it's helpful to know what it's not.  

An After Action Review is not ...

o A lecture

o A discussion of minor events

o A gripe session

o Intended to embarrass anyone

o To judge success or failure

Are AARs for everyone?

In reading about this topic over the years I've often wondered why more organizations don't take advantage of this tool.  Businesses, nonprofits, and higher education should consider using this process. 

However, not without caution.

Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT, and author of the best-selling book, "The Fifth Discipline," has this to say about AARs:

"The Army's After Action Review is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods devised. Yet, almost every corporate effort to graft this truly innovative practice into their culture has failed because, again and again, people reduce the living practice of AARs to a sterile technique."

What professor Senge observes about AARs, that they are often absent any fertility, could be said about other tools businesses embrace such as best practices, change management, SWOT analysis, mind mapping, brainstorming, and organizational restructuring.

Why things happen

The most important discovery is why things happened the way they did.  And an AAR has the potential for real-time learning--not just after the fact. 

(C) Real KM

An insightful understanding of an AAR comes from an article, "Learning in the Thick of It," published in the July-August 2005 issue of Harvard Business Review. 

Here's what the authors say about making real-time reviews pay off:

o It's not just the learning, but how the learning is used. 

o The goal is to identify practices to spread and mistakes not to repeat.

o Learning is not just what to do but how to think.

o To be useful, AAR findings have to find their way post-haste into the execution of strategy.

Getting started

Three things to keep in mind:

1. For large-scale assessments, an experienced facilitator to run a formal process is always a plus.  Smaller-scale, informal reviews, are more conversational in nature and don't require a trained moderator.  Just someone with good communication skills.

2. Come back to the original tasks and goals of the event--and begin asking the basic set of questions suggested above.

3. The more employees that are engaged the more recall and lessons learned.

 

*Several ideas are drawn from the book, "Conversational Leadership." 


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01 September 2021

Climbing Mount Denali

"Better we raise our skill than lower the climb."

--Royal Robbins

At 20,310 feet (6,190 meters), Mount Denali is the highest peak in North America. Translated as "The Great One," the former Mount McKinley (name changed in 2015 by the U.S. Department of the Interior), is the centerpiece of the six million acres of Denali National Park located 240 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska.  

Mount Denali Alaska
(C) USA Today

Denali, which is the common expression, is the third tallest of the "Seven Summits" (the tallest peak on each continent), after Mount Everest (29,032 feet) in Asia and Mount Aconcagua (22,838) in South America.  The first verifiable ascent to Denali's South Peak was achieved on 7 June 1913 by climbers Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, and Robert Tatum.

The National Park Service says the average trip expedition to the top and back is 17 to 21 days.

New summits to climb

During a recent "tundra wilderness tour" of Denali National Park, our guide stopped the bus and pointed in a northwest direction to the Alaskan Range where Denali resides in all its grandeur.   

Did we see Denali that day?  
 
Unfortunately, not.  We failed to qualify for the 30 percent club, the percentage that glimpses the tallest mountain in North America.     

However, in this phase of the pandemic, other challenging summits are in clear view needing to be scaled.  

Here are four:

1.  How we address Covid-19 (and variants).  The virus appears to be moving from a pandemic or global outbreak to an endemic or virus that's constantly maintained.  Everything else on this list is significantly affected by how we understand and respond to the coronavirus in terms of science, government policy, and personal decisions related to vaccinations.

Covid-19
(C) Food and Drug Administration

What's the goal? Is it to control the virus (influenza) or eradicate it (smallpox)?  And who decides?  The answers to those questions will likely define what normal becomes.  

2.  How we work.  The September return to office timetable for professional, managerial, and technical personnel has been set back by a surge in the Delta variant. This situation should only increase our appreciation for others whose work, such as medical personnel, has required on-site duty from the pandemic's beginning.  

Work from home (WFH) and hybrid schedules get the most attention.  And employees in some fields like tech seem to have an upper hand with flexibility as a prize possession.  

The other side looks like this: Projects take longer. Training is tougher. Hiring and integrating employees is more complicated.  Younger professionals can't sit next to experienced colleagues and learn the trade.  

When it comes to promotions, out of sight is probably out of mind.  

Whatever corporate culture exists is built on pre-existing relationships.  At some point, those interactions exhaust themselves, and new ones are required to keep shared beliefs and values alive.  

If you've been in business for any length of time you know the future happens face-to-face--assuming employers can find people to work.  Larger companies are doing okay while smaller businesses struggle to meet employment goals.  That's especially true for the dining and lodging industries. 

3.  How we educate our children and youth.  In the U.S., government-run schools, which continue in enrollment decline, are the main providers of instruction for around 90 percent of the country's 56 million or so K-12 students.  

A joint Stanford/New York Times study of 70,000 schools in 33 states showed that those offering remote-only learning at the beginning of 2020-2021 experienced a 3.7 percent decline.  Those with in-person schooling went down 2.6 percent.

A McKinsey study shows that the impact of the pandemic on K–12 student learning was significant, leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest. 

In math, students in majority Black schools ended the year with six months of unfinished learning, students in low-income schools with seven. High schoolers have become more likely to drop out of school, and high school seniors, especially those from low-income families, are less likely to go on to postsecondary education. 

And the crisis had an impact on not just academics but also the broader health and well-being of students, with more than 35 percent of parents very or extremely concerned about their children’s mental health, the report concludes.

4. How we live.  The Wall Street Journal identified the following in the U.S.:  Mobility is increasing.  Individuals and families are looking for more space to improve working conditions at home. Younger people are leaving the cities earlier than usual.  Some older households speeding up retirement. Suburbs the winners with large cities reducing decades-long growth trends.

A Zillow report shows the median existing-home price for all housing types in June 2021 was $363,300, up 23.4 percent from June 2020.  Affordable housing and starter homes are in short supply. 

Other inclines

Travel ...

All Delta flight segments--Detroit-Salt Lake City-Anchorage and back through Minneapolis/St. Paul--was full.  The Marriott in downtown Anchorage was full.  The Wilderness Express trains were full.  The Denali resorts were full.  

Domestic leisure travel is holding its own although bookings for fall are beginning to slow due to the variant.  Business travel, where the profits are, is not recovering at the same pace and may not for some time.      

Most countries are open to travelers from the United States. But as Covid-19 cases continue to surge some places like the European Union are looking at resuming restrictions like pre-arrival testing, quarantines, and travel bans according to a report in The New York Times.

Gatherings ...  

Everything from concerts to conventions to churches.  There was momentum this past year to return to auditoriums, hotels, and houses of worship. But those gains may slow if people begin to feel unsafe indoors in crowded conditions.  

To show up some performers are requiring audiences to mask up. 

Motivations for climbing

Those who traverse Mount Denali have different motivations but one similarity.  All must first know what kind of mountain climber they are. 

Scaling the coronavirus requires knowing who we are to collectively reach the top to conquer something that for now has conquered us.  
 

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01 August 2021

Managing Oneself--First

 "Self-control is strength; right thought is mastery, and calmness is power.

--James Allen

Peter Drucker, the famed management consultant, and author took the month of August each year to review his life and profession.  Why not December?  Most likely he found the end of the year to be too busy and too late.  A crowded holiday season doesn't lend itself to contemplation.    

So consider making the dog days of summer (in my hemisphere) a time for intentional reflection and renewal as we look at managing oneself--first. 

Crises are revealing

Looking back over the past 18 months what have you learned about yourself?  What have the different types of crises, social and economic, revealed about you?  And how are you transitioning from crisis mode to focusing on the future? 

Perhaps now is the moment to look deeper into your life and habits to see what should stay the same, be strengthened, or removed.

Holding sway

One way to improve your personal and professional life is to consider desired outcomes for yourself and the organization.  Then determine where to allocate hours, days, and weeks to achieve those ends.  

Positive influence over the behavior of others comes from knowing where time should be spent, its purpose, and with whom.  That's the first step in managing yourself. 

Here are questions for you and others to think about:  

-Internally, where does leadership have the most influence?  The least influence? 

-In which area are you spending most of your time now? With what result?

-How do self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-discipline contribute to being different? 

Observations on human behavior

1.  It's difficult if not impossible to manage or influence others without the ability to control yourself.  Proverbial wisdom says that a person without self-control is like a house with its doors and windows knocked out.

2.  By temperament or wiring, a few have a head start with a disposition toward making themselves work.  They behave in a particular way without anyone telling them what to do.  These individuals are more settled, more mature at an earlier stage of life.  

3.  In developing the right behaviors some need more time than others.  Or the right experiences.  Interpreting those moments is often a delayed process.  A trusted friend or mentor can play a pivotal role in helping us get to where we need to be. 

But rewiring our brains is also a possibility.  A lot has to do with how you think of yourself, and less about the circumstances into which you were born.

4.  Knowing who you are, what you believe, what you stand for, is absolutely essential for moral leadership.

5.  Time is the most important non-renewable resource we have.  Where to spend it?

Too much time on the least controllable areas and not enough time on the more controllable areas hinders executive performance.  And those misplaced priorities give permission for associates to do the same.    

If your time allocation is out of balance, how to reset the leadership clock? 

What gets your attention

The world entangles the mind.  Technology scatters the mind.  Pandemics and politics confuse the mind.   

What are you thinking? (C)

Leaders tend to be confronted by too many distractions.  Employees and customers are in the same predicament.  Digital is a culprit, but not the only one.

On average our minds wander almost 50% of the time.  That includes thinking about things that are not going on directly around us, contemplating events that happened in the past, that might happen in the future or will never happen at all.  This analysis comes from Ness Labs.  

There's good to be gained from intentional mind-wandering.  Your brain needs that type of exercise, according to the research. However, wandering too much and too afar comes with an emotional cost, their report concludes.

Shifting gears, how do you get your brain to concentrate on what matters?

To improve focus, Ness Labs recommend the following--

  • Manage your distractions.  Put the phone away--although you may work better with background noise or music.
  • Monitor your mind. To wherever you drift, learn to return to the task at hand.  It's not about never losing your focus--which would be unrealistic--but about monitoring your attention.
  • Strengthen your brain's circuitry.  Focus on your breath. The reality of losing focus and bringing your focus back to breath improves concentration.  
An August refresh

Here's a closing thought from philosopher, Tom Morris--

If grit keeps you going, and resilience picks you up, self-renewal helps you stay energized.  And it's ironically easiest when you're working for something greater than self. 


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01 July 2021

Dysfunctional Teams Are Still Around

"Sometimes problems don't require a solution to solve them; instead they require maturity to outgrow them."

--Dr. Steve Maraboli


In 2006 at a conference in New York, hearing best-selling author Patrick Lencioni reminded me of a professor filled with inexhaustible things to say but wisely limiting his thoughts to a far-reaching few.  Those who follow Mr. Lencioni know that he teaches using--fables.  

Trained as a writer, the former Bain & Co. consultant discovered that telling a story is an effective way to provide relational insights to clients.  The main theme:  "Organizational health is the single greatest competitive advantage in any business," says Pat Lencioni.     

New season-old habits 

Covid-19 may have pushed unhealthy behaviors off to the side, making way for survival. However, inconsistent and detrimental practices are never far away. 

Coming out of a global pandemic, and a return to work transition, this may be a good time to revisit the main points in "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," a book of fables that sold over three million copies. 

Brand 1123RF (C)

Think about each dysfunction in the context of a year's long physical separation; working from home; millennials as the majority of the workforce; and a significantly changed office environment for those who return.

Here they are: 

1.  Absence of trust—unwilling to be vulnerable within the group.  

2.  Fear of conflict—seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate.

3.  Lack of commitment—feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization.

4.  Avoidance of accountability—ducking the responsibility to call peers and superiors on counterproductive behavior that sets low standards.

5.  Inattention to results—focusing on personal success, status, and ego before team success.

Consider the following

-What, if any, of these dysfunctions existed in your enterprise before the lockdown? How were they being addressed?  

-Are there any abnormal functionings within your leadership teams currently?  What are they?

-How does interpersonal behavior affect the execution of corporate strategy?   

-As the economy resumes, and safety improves, is face-to-face a better way to deal with these problems? 

Exhausting but necessary

Building cooperation throughout a company, but especially at the top, is a never-ending task.  An effort like this requires time and emotional energy. 

Holding any group mutually accountable (including leadership) is even harder when self-importance supersedes organizational purpose. 

This difficult undertaking may explain, at least in part, why for nearly 20 years "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" remains a best-selling book.



Source:  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, 2002 (Jossey-Bass).



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01 June 2021

Books of Summer

(C) McGraw-Hill Executive Library 

Here is a list of recommended business reads from Inc. Magazine.  The titles are drawn from 2020--we will wait to see what makes the list in 2021:

1. Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever

by Alex Kantrowitz

2. Billion-Dollar Brand Club: How Dollar Shave Club, Warby Parker, and Other Disruptors Are Remaking What We Buy, by Lawrence Ingrassia

3. Experimentation Works: The Surprising Power of Business Experiments

by Stefan H. Thomke

4. Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution, by Robert Chesnut

5. Lead From the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth, by Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz

6. No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, by Sarah Frier

7. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

8. When More Is Not Better: Overcoming America's Obsession with Economic Efficiency, by Roger L. Martin

9. Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber

by Susan Fowler

10. A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond, by Daniel Susskind


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01 May 2021

Navigating the Suez Canal

 "Ships are safe in the harbor, but that's not what ships are for."

-John A. Shedd

An ultra-large Golden class container ship, Ever Given, became stuck in the Suez Canal on 23 March 2021 at 05:30 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).   The ship, operated by Evergreen Marine, was en route from Malaysia to the Netherlands when it ran aground after winds allegedly blew the ship off course. An investigation by Egyptian authorities, who own and operate the canal, is underway.

Ever Given container ship, stuck in the Suez Canal.
(C) University of Miami

The Ever Given, a ship as long as the Empire State Building is tall, completely blocked the canal for six days.  After being freed and refloated on 29 March, the Ever Given made way for a backlog of over 400 ships to pass through the canal.  

However, with a seizure of the Ever Given by Egyptian authorities and a pending $1 billion fine, the ship isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Time is money

Where is the Suez Canal?

The canal cuts through Egypt, linking the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Red Sea in the south.  It's one of the world's best-known and most important waterways.  Nearly 19,000 vessels passed through the canal last year carrying 1.2 billion tons of cargo.  Around 13% of maritime trade passes through the Suez Canal, including a large proportion of the world's oil.  (Suez Canal Authority; The Wall Street Journal)

The Suez Canal.  

An alternate route goes around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern coast of Africa.  But that course adds two weeks to the same trip from Asia to Europe.  

Major sailing routes. (C) Researchgate

The backstory

The size of ships is growing faster than ports can expand. Ships' size is directly related to consumer demand.  With household spending on the rise, logistics problems are likely to get worse.

For the U.S., a certain percentage of Peleton bikes, large screen televisions, and hot tubs are now being shipped by air to avoid a backlog in the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California.  The LA port is North America's busiest while China is home to seven of the world's 10 largest container ports. (American Enterprise Institute) 

A National Retail Federation survey conducted in March before the Suez Canal blockage found that 98% of respondents said they had been impacted by port or other shipping-related delays.  More than half said congestion was adding at least three weeks to their supply chains.

The Ever Given was carrying 20,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent) containers filled with goods of nearly every kind. 

The incident

How did the ship get stuck in the first place?

The Suez Canal Authority said high wind speeds were a factor in causing the accident.  The Authority is also looking into human error and technical malfunction to see if they played a role.

"You can't steer straight if the wind is blowing sideways," said  Robert Flannery, an active pilot from New York who is familiar with this waterway.   

From the accident report, the Ever Given was moving north up the canal toward the Mediterranean Sea when it was caught in a season dust storm known as the khamsin where wind speeds can reach 40 knots or 46 mph.  Its bow then veered into the right side of the channel becoming embedded in the canal wall--and wedging the vessel across the entire width of the channel.

Convergence 

When stuck in a bad situation it's not likely you'll get out on your own.  So it was with the Ever Given cargo ship in the Suez Canal.  Let's think about what could be helpful in your next crisis:

1.  Are you on the right side of the problem?  Tugboats stationed north of Ever Given made it almost impossible to free the ship until reinforcements from elsewhere arrived at the south to pull on its stern.

2.  Scaling up means bigger and more complex problems. Twice the thick cables with which the main tugboat pulled the container ship snapped under the tension, the first time the crew has seen such a rupture.  Do you want to grow your business?  Then be prepared for unfamiliar circumstances and obstacles of size. Without previous experience management solutions often result from trial and error.  

3.  While asking for help keep in mind that experts are no guarantee of a fix. Workers had dredged more than a million cubic feet of sand and silt beneath the 1,300-foot-long vessel.  And then the tugs took advantage of an unusually high tide to begin moving the tanker back and forth.  But instead of slipping free and gliding to the center of the canal, the Ever Given remained stuck waiting for the next high tide.   

4.  Have hope--but hold the public optimism.  The Canal Authority began letting ships in from the north after engineers calculated the Ever Given would be pulled free.  This decision just added to the problem creating an even greater traffic jam.  

5.  One last push. The ship's owner hired Smit Salvage from the Netherlands.  A backup plan which called for unloading containers to lighten the load was put in place but added weeks to the rescue mission, something the Canal Authority wanted to avoid at all costs.  Instead, they chose to go for one last push hoping to extract just enough sand and debris for the Ever Given to slide free. 

Supermoon.  (C) The Guardian

6.  An assist from E.T.   Sometimes we get a break from a third-party source to help us out of a jam.  In this instance, the rescue team received an extra-terrestrial gift--a supermoon.  That type of moon materializes when the full moon coincides with the moon's closest approach to Earth in its orbit. Scientists say supermoons make the moon appear a little brighter and closer than normal, although the difference is hard to spot with the naked eye. (space.com) 

There are only four supermoons scheduled in 2021.  Amazingly, the first one came at just the right time on 28 March and pushed the tide higher.      

7.  Ship ahoy. The Alp Guard tugboat, with the pulling power of 285 metric tons arrived, providing a significant boost.  Fighting high winds and strong currents, the tide began to ebb and the Ever Given began to finally stir.  

On 29 March at 3:05 p.m. local time, the ship was free.  



Additional sources include CNBC; USA Today; Wikipedia; BBC; Popular Mechanics; and the Maritime Executive.


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01 April 2021

The Power of a Predictable Leader

"Nor yet be overeager in pursuit of any thing; for the mercurial often happen to leave judgment behind them, and sometimes make work for repentance."

--William Penn

In a recent survey of over 1,000 executives, more than half--in different industries--said their roles had changed due to the pandemic.  Some 30 percent said their jobs have changed permanently according to Chicago-based WittKieffer who sponsored the research.  

The study raises this implication--many leaders are being asked to do work they weren't previously trained or prepared to do.  "While some are excelling in a new environment, other executives are struggling to find their place during the pandemic," the report stated.

That analysis describes how an outside force like COVID-19 causes disruptive change. 

What are organizations doing to themselves?

Destabilizing influences

Even as the economy rebounds, it's hard to blame any remaining woes on infectious disease.    

Professor Howard Stevenson, who teaches at Harvard University, says that companies were destroying necessary predictability leading up to 2020.  

"The practices that leaders are adopting to make their organizations more competitive are ignoring the human need for predictability," Stevenson observed.  "Corporations must recognize the paradox that many management tools in fact destroy what holds the organization together," he concluded.  

(C) The Telegraph

That need for predictability among associates is not a need for guarantee--it's a need for clarity and consistency.

Professor Stevenson points to the following causes of damage to employee morale and cultural glue:

--Reengineering throws out all the old procedures and rules of thumb by which an organization has operated.

--Continuous improvement programs promise only that an organization's rules will continue to change.

--Matrix management requires that two (or more) managers, who need not agree with each other, judge employees' work and determine their future in the company.

--Rightsizing sheds people, often regardless of their individual skills or performance.

In the age of Zoom Professor Stevenson adds that "nowhere is the notion of predictability more threatened than in a virtual organization which is not much of an organization at all."

Unpredictable

Mercurial describes someone whose mood or behavior is changeable and unpredictable; or who is clever, lively, and quick.  It's out of that temperament where management fads often originate.  Compulsive behavior is the opposite of being predictable.   

Apple's Steve Jobs had a mercurial style. His behavior included rapid and unpredictable change but also qualities of eloquence and ingenuity.  

The real world is not straightforward and people are complicated.  Working for an impulsive boss, which can be a difficult experience, means you have to adapt or move on. 

Predictable 

British author, Roderic Yapp, writes that if you’re working with people as part of a team, you want to be predictable. "You want to make it easy for them to meet your expectations because unpredictability is a nightmare for people trying to manage upwards," he notes.

How does one be more predictable?  He offers the following advice:

1. Deepen the relationships you have with your people. 

How can you motivate someone and improve their performance if you don’t know anything about them?  Build a deeper relationship with the person by asking them about their personal history.  What is important to them? What drives and motivates them? What do they want out of life and how can you support that aspiration. 

In the exchanges, give them a roadmap to you.

2. Remove emotion from the equation.

Do you purposefully act in a chosen and deliberate manner or are you simply reacting? The two are very different. Reactions happen quickly. 

The most common is when mistakes are made, tempers get lost and voices get raised. These behaviors lead to a climate of fear and, at best, compliance. Impertinent conduct undermines open, honest conversation and challenge. It causes those around you unnecessary stress. An unbecoming habit can result in the best people leaving. 

Acting deliberately is a choice. It involves being aware of your behavior and the impact it is having on other people. 

Gaining composure

We're all wired differently. However, remaining consistent and undisturbed inside that unique wiring is not always easy to do.  It comes naturally to some like doctors and airline pilots.  But for others, it requires practice to get there. 

While leopards can't change their spots and tigers their stripes, we're not as fixed in our frame of mind as some might think.  Maturing in attitude and behavior is a big part of professional development.  Personal growth leads to wisdom which is a desirable trait and an overlooked strength.  

Ultimately, the right kind of power, and predictability, accrues to a leader with self-control. In turn, that composure gives confidence to others when they need it the most.    



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