One Simple Habit That Will Spawn Your Best Work

My first mentor in consulting—think stern, silver-haired, driven genius who never settled for less than his (or my) very best work—taught me one of the most important skills I ever learned.

The one habit that—over time—will help spawn your best work.

The after action review.

Born in the military, it’s better than the usual debrief where we’re all busily (if unintentionally) assigning blame.

Because the after action review is focused on you. What you’d planned to happen versus what actually did. It’s not about how your client or colleagues could have improved. No sir. It’s about how YOU could have better served your vision.

No finger pointing. No righteous anger. Just an inward focused understanding of what you did that derailed your plan. When it involves multiple team members, each one looks to his/her own role and shares their perspective on JUST THEIR OWN PERFORMANCE.

I’ve worked inside firms where this would have been career suicide. But that first mentor—Don M—always made it safe. Because his allegiance was to the work. He was a purist. A man of towering integrity who you could always count on to do the right thing for the work.

When you’re running your own firm, after action reviews—and not just for the projects that went sideways—are lifesavers.

It’s how we learn which clients (and team members) we’re temperamentally suited for. If you can do a clear-eyed after action review and own your mistakes, you have a clarity that will help you avoid those same missteps or the circumstances that produced them.

I once had a client who would not (or could not) tame her temper. I never knew who would be on the other end of the line—the seasoned pro who came to meetings well-prepared and focused—or the temporary werewolf who used her consultants as a misplaced outlet for her anger.

An AAR after our first project together made me quickly realize that I was not doing my best work for her. Sure I could blame it on her mercurial personality, but that wasn’t the point. It’s that I couldn’t produce the great work she deserved. She wasn’t going to change her style and I wasn’t willing to adapt.

We parted ways amicably.

The point is, very few projects—or relationships for that matter—proceed exactly the way we planned. And when the results suck, it’s time to understand why or we’re doomed to repeat them.

Try the after action review. Just consider what you could have/would have done differently.

And then use that insight next time.

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  • Thank you for this Rochelle. It is one of those points I knew so well years ago. But I have conveniently let it slip to the recesses of my brain; intentional or not. Now you have brought it center stage. It made me think of a recent appointment that I thought went well. But, did I accomplish everything? I do not think so. I can’t go back and recreate the meeting. But I can make sure it does not happen again. As with the AAR, this creates true honesty. One can’t lie to themselves.

  • I strongly adhere to a belief in growth and learning throughout your career (and life for that matter). Growth certainly cannot occur without self-assessing our work. Always make room for considered reflection. We all benefit and as you made clear in your commentary, clients also reap the benefits.

    • Rochelle

      Oh the clients definitely reap the benefits as you quite rightly point out Corey. I like to think it keeps us intellectually and emotionally honest..

  • Elizabeth Shelly

    Another great column this week! I absolutely believe in taking the time to reflect and figure out what I could/would have done differently and how my choices contributed to the outcome. It’s the one control I have as a consultant since most of the rest is out of my direct control! Thanks for the great reminder.

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