Coach’s Corner Blog

Learning From the Past: 2 Exercises for High Performing Teams

May 21, 2015 by Leave a Comment


In the past week a lot has been written about potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush and his evolving answers to a vexing question from a reporter: Knowing what we know now, would you have made the decision to invade Iraq in 2003?

During the course of a week his answer evolved and the subject of this post has nothing to do with any of the political ramifications of Mr. Bush as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. But, are we asking what lessons have been learned from our previous behavior and how that informs us about making better decisions in the future?

David Brooks is an author and editorial columnist for the New York Times. In his May 19 column, Learning from Mistakes, in which he reviews his perspectives on America’s decision to go to war in Iraq, he states:

History is an infinitely complex web of causations. To erase mistakes from the past is to obliterate your world now. You can’t go back and know then what you know now. You can’t step in the same river twice.

So it’s really hard to give simple sound-bite answers about past mistakes. The question, would you go back and undo your errors, is unanswerable. It’s only useful to ask, what wisdom have you learned from your misjudgments that will help you going forward?

In my team coaching work, I have frequently facilitated discussions that help the group to reflect on efforts over the past six months or year in order to reinforce progress that has been made and gain perspective on how the team continues to develop and progress.

It really does help them to focus on how the wisdom of their judgments, not just their misjudgments, has informed them about their continual improvement as a high performing entity.

Here are the two techniques that I use:

1. Prouds and Sorries

This simple technique is a great way to have a team reflect on all those things they are proud of that they accomplished and some things that they are sorry that they either did not complete or get around to. It’s simply a way to create a quick perspective that reinforces the positive but gives voice to those opportunities for improvement.

My experience has been that people often focus on what went wrong, the “Sorries”, and are less focused on their accomplishments, the “Prouds”.

When I provide a coaching client their feedback from my 360° interviews, where I divide the feedback into Pluses (the good stuff), and Challenges (the not so good stuff), I often find that my clients will go right to the challenges first. I will admit that I gently chastise them to go back to the beginning and focus on the positives first.

This process asks everyone to identify an accomplishment that the team should be proud of first. I use the “whip” method to go around the room and record one item from each person in succession. If it comes to someone’s turn and they don’t have an immediate answer, they can pass, and you just keep going until the team runs out of ideas.

This allows everyone to participate and fosters what is referred to as “piggybacking” – where one person’s idea creates ideas from others. Once the Prouds are finished, repeat the process for the Sorries.

I would suggest that Prouds and Sorries is a great tool for team meetings to generate some positive energy, but it’s not really a diagnostic tool in and of itself. For a real diagnosis, I would suggest a more expansive facilitation of the lessons learned from any significant endeavor or as a reflection for a period of time.

2. Lessons Learned

This is a somewhat more formal diagnostic process and generally revolves around a particular set of events, a time frame in the set of accomplishments that reflect on evaluating progress relative to a set of objectives. I do suggest that this process be facilitated so that the participants can fully focus on their reflections.

Here are some key elements that make this a successful process:

  • Who: be clear on who is invited to participate and ensure that all relevant parties and decision-makers are involved. If the group gets too large, this can inhibit effective dialogue. It also helps to suggest that people do some reflection on the key issues to be discussed prior to the meeting. If this is important, it deserves preparation.
  • What: as a diagnostic exercise, it is important that you focus on particular outcomes, a set of events, or methods that were used to reach an outcome.
  • Where: this can be done anywhere, but it is critical that enough uninterrupted time be allocated for this to occur. In that regard, it can be of benefit to do this off-site so the distractions can be minimized.
  • Why: this is truly about identifying any “wisdom” that the group can learn from its own activities, especially as it relates to how effectively the team itself operates, not just the outcomes. Working “ON” the business like this is how any group gets better.
  • When: you need to pick a point in time when enough of the outcomes from an effort are clear. An annual review should be a minimum.
  • How: I do suggest this effort be facilitated and you also need to ensure the following occur:

– Someone is keeping a record of key points;

– The ground rules for this effort focus not on laying blame but on understanding how decision-making can be improved;

– The leader use these efforts to identify and communicate what the lessons learned have been and how that will inform and impact group behavior going forward.

It’s very important that we take the time to reflect upon and capture the wisdom that our life and business experiences teach us. This is very difficult to do by ourselves and this group activity can be both reassuring and reaffirming.

Ask yourself:

  • Do my team and I take the time to reflect on what we’ve learned and how that can help us make better choices in the future?
  • Do we approach such a reflection with enough rigor to be sure that we capture the key insights?
  • Is the process we engage in one that lifts the mood and spirit of the team?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Photo Credit: Antonio Olmedo


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