Failure is inevitable, but learning from it is not. When mistakes happen, companies typically try to assign blame, but this won't prevent the incident from happening again, or with different teams. During the next crisis, use this framework developed by Dave Zwieback, Head of Engineering at Next Big Sound, to get to the root of the issue and move forward in a positive, constructive way.
How to Conduct a Learning Review
- Set the right context. You don’t have to call it a post-mortem — call it a learning review, and encourage these reflection points after both failures and successes. This will reinforce a culture of learning from both wins and losses. Most importantly, don't look for a scapegoat, as this will only encourage people to hide the truth.
- Build a timeline. Visually recreate the event, as determined by the people who were involved and impacted, to illustrate a chronological account of what actually happened. In particular, ask each participant what happened, when it happened, and how they attempted to process the situation. Also make sure to gather input from diverse points of view, which can serve as a reference point for the conversation and mitigate hindsight bias. Zwieback recommends questions such as:
- Did we know this at the time, or only in hindsight?
- How is this problem different from similar problems we've had before?
- What did we do right?
- Close the loop. This last step is the most important: generate clear and relevant action steps in a separate meeting to ensure distinction between the learning review and the follow up. In addition, publish the learning review write-up as widely as possible to reinforce the culture of learning across the company.
Takeaway: While playing the blame game may serve as a quick way out, it will only sabotage your organization from within. So when something goes wrong, don’t blame individuals for failure, but rather, investigate the conditions surrounding the incident. Human error is a symptom, not a cause, of a systemic issue.