I was once asked to facilitate an After Action Review of very successful project team. This team was the ‘stuff of legends’. They had successfully advanced their project from the early stages of Pre-Clinical Discovery through to First in Human evaluation and eventually to achieve a positive Proof of Concept in Patients. What’s more, they had achieved this success in a record (short) time.
The AAR was a great learning experience for me (even though I wasn’t on the project) but and the team learned a great deal for themselves – the number one goal for any AAR. Of course the wider organisation was also desperately keen to hear from the team. Everyone wanted to apply the learning to the same buttons or pull the same levers on their own projects.
Everyone outside of the team had our theories already about what made up the ‘Secret Sauce’ (although everyone’s answer was different from everyone else’s). The whole organisation was waiting. Efficacy biomarkers? Pharmacology biomarkers? Diagnostics? Team work? Drug profile? Quality of mechanism? Executive support? The list went on…and on.
And then we were there – AAR read out. A senior leadership team waiting with baited breath for the answer…desperate to launch their own teams to a higher level of performance. And even know I can vividly picture everyone’s expressions when the team leader delivered their answer. One sentence.
“We planned for failure…and hoped for success.”
Pause. Wait. Look around at everyone’s faces. Surprise? (What?) Confusion? (What on earth?) Anticipation? (There has to be more?)
There was more of course. The team had carried out a superb AAR (and I take no credit for that at all), and they had copious amounts of additional learning that they were more than happy to share with everyone – and they did. But their goal was to emphasise their philosoph – planning for failure…hoping for success.
It was simple and impactful. Most teams I have been part of will always plan for success…hope to avoid failure. Most leadership team I sit on – or have presented to – expect to hear plans for success…and would be similarly bemused by a plans for failure.
Early in their AAR, the team shared the detailed plan they had developed to achieve their goal. I recognised immediately I was viewing an exquisite plan. Created by an experienced, capable and high performing team. I was in awe….and more than a little jealous!
But their team philosophy prevented them from simply executing against this plan. Doing so would have been planning for success – assuming that their first (or even their best) plan will work as designed, and therefore investing everything in this plan. The team philosophy – planning for failure – had driven them to prepare multiple contingency and back up plans…each of comparable detail and quality.
The team had used their experience and ability to assess all potential failure points in their plan…moments where science or research could go against them. And for each ‘event’, they detailed what they would do and who would be involved. I had never seen this level or quality of advance planning before…and never have since!
Most teams have a plan…but we seldom have desire or time – or both – to plan for any contingencies, let alone all likely contingencies. We all know that our plans will never play out in the way we predict, and yet we still rely on our ability to solve problems when they arrive. Even though experience shows this approach is inefficient…and can often fail.
I wasn’t able to keep the AAR slide deck of course…but I still have the memory…
I just need to apply that learning…