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What You Can’t Learn By Failing

Afghanistan veteran, Rhodes scholar, and Facebook partnerships manager Craig Mullaney explains how to learn from messing up.

What You Can’t Learn By Failing
[Photo: Flickr user The National Guard]

You’ve just realized that you screwed something up. The pitch fell flat. The project just blew up. You lost the deal you thought you had in the bag. What do you do now? What can you learn from this fresh failure?

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Here’s what: Nothing.

For all our obsession with failure, getting things wrong doesn’t usually teach us anything all on its own. It’s only when we stop to assess it–using the right metrics–that failure starts to become useful.

Meet Craig Mullaney. Craig manages Facebook’s strategic partnerships with global influencers. Before that, he graduated second in his class from West Point, completed Army Ranger school, earned a masters degree at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, served in combat in Afghanistan, and wrote a New York Times best seller about his experience, The Unforgiving Minute. I had the opportunity to talk with Mullaney about what he’s learned from failure (yes, he’s had his share, too) and–perhaps more important–how he’s learned from it.

How To Understand What Happened

The “after action review” is a staple of the U.S. military’s approach to evaluating what and why things happen, especially when things don’t go as planned. As Mullaney explains it, the whole point of an after action review is to identify the changes you need to make, then “translate those changes into the fine motor skills that make you stronger.” Here’s the four-step process Mullaney learned at West Point to do that:

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1. Set expectations for your team. The after action review is “not a blame game or finger-pointing exercise,” says Mullaney. “It’s a learning process.” Nothing you do is ever perfect. “There’s always room for improvement. The only way to improve is by reflecting honestly on what happened.”

2. Develop “some sort of shared timeline on what happened–from multiple perspectives,” Mullaney advises. “Everyone has something to share.” The goal in this step is to determine the sequence of events that led to the outcome. Visuals like a white board can help. As you construct the timeline, remember that “no one is ever in the same battle–people come to the after action review with conflicting memories.” That’s okay, because, as Mullaney says, “You don’t need to have a perfect version of the truth to learn from it.”

3. Talk about what went right. After you reconstruct the timeline, get everyone involved to identify the “positive, reinforcing attributes of the experience,” says Mullaney. You want them to consider questions like:

  • What went right?
  • What worked well?
  • What did we appropriately anticipate?

4. Gather constructive feedback by asking:

  • What didn’t work well?
  • Why didn’t it work?
  • What would we do differently next time?

How To Learn From What Happened

To get the most from an after action review, there are a few key principles you need to keep in mind.

Honesty: If you’re facilitating an after action review, you have to lead by example and set a tone of honesty. As Mullaney explains, “The only way to improve is to reflect honestly on what happened.”

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Contribution: Second, facilitators need to create the expectation that “everyone has something to contribute; rank doesn’t matter,” Mullaney adds. “The more open and non-hierarchal the after action review can be, the more effective the result.”

Variability: “Human endeavors are always the most complex,” Mullaney concedes. “Environmental conditions are always different . . . At least in combat, you don’t control all the variables. Even if your team executes the plan perfectly, the enemy still has a vote . . . Sometimes you can do everything right, and there’s a loss and it’s not your fault. You can’t control everything.”

Adaptability: The primary way to deal with variability is adaptability. In Mullaney’s experience, “Adaptability begins with humility–with appreciating that you don’t have all the answers, and there’s always something to learn from other people as well as your own experiences.”

Competitive Advantage: Mullaney believes–and I agree–that after action reviews should be conducted more often than they are. Outside the military, their “value might be underappreciated,” he says. “If you haven’t been in an organization that does this, you don’t know what you don’t know. It might not be seen as worth the time to do in an organization that is moving super fast.” The irony is that after action reviews create “an opportunity to improve competitive advantage through the ability to learn. There are a lot of potential gains left on the table by ignoring this.”