Effective Postmortem Discussions

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Problems come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t get mad. Get learning!

Sure, proper planning, resources, and discipline, can prevent many problems from ever happening. But no matter how hard we try, some will slip through, anyway – that’s just reality.

So how best can we learn from the bad things that happen?

Mistakes are the Stepping Stones to Wisdom

It starts with realizing that once whatever issues are resolved, we need to learn what we can from whatever just happened.

So it’s not a time to get mad. Or retributive. It’s a time to get smarter. And an important and helpful, but often overlooked step to bringing that learning front-and-center is something called the “postmortem.”

The Postmortem Process

For those of you not familiar with the term, let’s define the term as an analysis or discussion of an event after it is over.

Here are the steps I’ve used to great success with postmortems in the workplace:

1. Gather everyone together. Include staff, vendor personnel, and customers, if appropriate and thank them all for the being there. Focus on trying to put everyone at ease so they know it’s not an inquisition and it is okay to for them to relax. Assure them, if necessary, that “no heads will roll,” as that would lead to a quite different type of postmortem, if you get my drift!

2. Review what happened. Ask those most directly involved to retell the story, in their own words, of what happened. Encourage everyone to add pieces of information no matter how big or small their role was or the information is. Look to understand, not to blame, by asking questions like, “What then?” and “What else?” Show everyone the utmost respect and a true curiosity in recreating circumstances. And keep probing until everyone who has something to say, says it.

3. Ask for the learning. When you’re satisfied that everyone has spoken, shift to asking about what people have learned from what happened. “What did we learn from all this?” “How are we smarter?” “What changes should we make to plug any vulnerabilities that have become apparent?” Keep asking until, again, even the ‘quiet’ people speak. And if they don’t, invite each to share their thinking with the group…because the quiet people often have the best insights.

4. Assign follow-up tasks and due dates. Likely, some pretty good ideas will surface, many of which will require some planning, preparation, or processing. Follow-up is key, so be sure to have someone put these assignments in writing and distribute to everyone within one business day, and determine how best to insure these open items are properly tracked to completion in a suitable time frame.

5. Reiterate your appreciation. Close happily. Say something that indicates the work of the meeting is now complete. Thank them, again, for their openness, honesty, and collective wisdom. Say something funny, if you can – laughter is a great way to help people release any lingering tension they may be feeling. Reiterate how helpful their participation in this process has been for you…and hopefully them, as well.

6. Get ‘em back to work, because, well, there’s always more work to be done.

Hope this helps.

Original Source: https://www.ggci.com/blog/2003/10/effective-post-mortem-discussions.htm.

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“Shisa Kanko” for Leaders

Japanese rail workers routinely point at signs as they read them aloud.

The practice is called shisa kanko and, according to a study conducted by the Japan Railway Technical Research Institute, it has enabled a MAJOR improvement in occupational safety – as in reducing unforced errors by 85%!!!

It works like this:

Apparently, merely engaging one’s eyes, voice, and movement of an arm and hand in recognition of something – instead of just quietly noticing it – is a very powerful form of mindfulness…and quality improvement.

A Shisa Kano Example

I recently took a coaching exam – the International Coach Federation’s Coach Knowledge Assessment (CKA) – to measure my “understanding of the knowledge and skills important in the practice of coaching,” including its Core Competencies and Code of Ethics.

(The CKA is required for anyone seeking certification from the ICF, these days, but by virtue of my having been coaching, professionally, for 18 years and having earned my MCC-Master Certified Coach credential (the gold standard of coach certifications, one that fewer than 2% of all coaches worldwide have received) back in 2007, I was grandfathered from needing to take it. But I still wanted to. Just to see.)

Format-wise, it’s a computer-based, multiple-choice exam with 155 questions and a 3-hour time limit. (Another part of the overall certification process is actually demonstrating one’s coaching skills, but I won’t cover that here.)

Again, just to see, I decided that I wouldn’t study for the CKA – I’d take it ‘cold’ – I would shisa kano the heck out of it, though!!

So, I put on some lovely Japanese music (The Art of the Japanese Koto, Shakuhachi and Shamisen [#2], by the Yamato Ensemble, and Behind the Light, by Osamu Kitajima, since you asked) and settled in to begin the test. But rather than race through it, as one might typically do when under a time-constraint, I read each question aloud, slowly and purposefully, and considered each possible answer, again aloud, while using my index finger to point to, and follow along with, the words on the screen.

What a relaxing and engaging test it turned out to be!

Yes, I passed. So now I am also officially listed in the ICF’s Mentor Coach Registry. (Mentor coaching is another requirement for those seeking certification, by the way.)

Leadership Implications of Shisa Kanko

So what if leaders started using shisa kanko in their daily activities? What might that look like?

Well, first off, many (most?) would likely create a mess, I fear. Why? Because they’d probably be way too aggressive in their pointing!

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You could TOTALLY see that sort of thing happening, right?!

So maybe it WOULDN’T work so well.

But what if the tone and tenor were modified a bit? What would be the implications if bosses, everywhere, started, routinely:

  • …articulating, out loud, what they actually want instead of making us guess or shoot at a moving target?
  • …thinking more crisply and cleanly about the decisions they’re making, along with any potentially unintended implications?
  • …giving us their full and undivided attention instead of finishing off an email, reading a memo, or be clearly distracted by something else during our 1-on-1’s with them?
  • …literally pointing to, and explaining, what success looks like instead of just defining it through the absence of everything we’re doing wrong?
  • …providing meaningful guidance, tutelage, and insight when we ask for them instead of, well, not?
  • …coming to our cubes or offices instead of always calling us into theirs?

An Imperfect Analogy

Okay, sure, you can argue that some of my examples aren’t really examples of shisa kanko. But so what, I say! After all, they’re all irrefutable points along the line of improving one’s leadership impact and influence.

So the bigger question is: Do you want to take from them what you can…or be left at the ‘less capable leader’ station?

It’s your choice.

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All aboard!



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Listening For What Bosses ‘Listen For’

Image Source: PixabayI was recently reminded of a helpful leadership tool I sometimes recommend – and a number of my my clients continue to use. (If memory serves, I think I got the idea from Tracy Goss’ “The Last Word on Power.”)

The big idea is this: Listen for ‘what bosses listen for’ – and then frame your requests, to them, in specifically those terms.

For examples, does which does your boss listen more for:

  • Problems to solve or opportunities to leverage?
  • Revenue increases or cost savings?
  • Ways to provide increased visibility for their direct reports or ways to increase their own profile?
  • Who to blame or how avoid blame? (Sadly, yes.)

The possibilities are near-endless and the same boss will listen for different things, and different times, depending on circumstances. (Think how less attentive bosses can be when preparing for big meetings.)

But, generally speaking, bosses have a preferred ‘default’ something that they listen for – and it’s in your best interest to know what that is, and speak directly to it.

A ‘Listen For’ How-To Story

As a relatively new executive, I was having trouble convincing my new boss to even listen to some of my my ideas for improving things. It didn’t matter how hard I tried or how well I prepared – he just was not interested in having those conversations with me.

So I started paying closer attention to the conversations he WAS having with my peers – and the recommendations of theirs he WAS approving.

Now I knew they weren’t all particularly great ideas, but they were still getting his go-ahead – so what the heck was going on?!

The answer had to do with what he was listening for – in his case, problems to solve.


My approach had been to talk in terms of opportunities to leverage, not problems to solve. No wonder pitching ideas based on all the cool extra things they could help us achieve, long-term, were going nowhere!

So I got smarter and started pitching the same ideas in terms of problems that needed to be addressed:

  • Me: Hey, Boss – I need you to know about something that’s showing up on the radar and looks like it could really bite us.
  • My boss: Really? Oh my! What is it? Do you have a solution?
  • Me: Why, yes…I do!

Variations on a Theme

I also used this ‘what they listen for’ concept when I took over responsibility for a department that considered themselves ‘orphans’ and ‘stepchildren’ – and suffered from terrible morale – because that same boss never paid them any mind or gave them much, if any, attention.

My re-frame was to tell staff about his being a professional problem-solver – and a great one at that!

“If he even sniffs a problem,” I said, “he’s on it,” which they knew to be all-too-true from stories they heard from their friends in other departments that reported up to him.

“The fact that he isn’t spending time with us is not an insult – and not a sign he doesn’t care,” I continued. “To the contrary: It’s a compliment – and one of the highest order, because it means that he’s SO confident and SO comfortable with your work, and your ability to make good choices, that he knows he doesn’t have to worry, one bit, about what you’re all doing or be at-the-ready to step in at a moment’s notice, as you know he would, if he thought he needed to. You see, in HIS mind, we are NOT a problem – we are a refreshing relief – which has resulted in him giving us waaaay more autonomy and waaaay more control of what we do than any other area that reports to him. ”

I had their attention!

“Now having that said,” I said, “I get how ‘recognition for a job well done’ is, sometimes, needed. So, my commitment to you is that within the next 30 days, I’ll get him to meet with us all to personally thank you, and acknowledge that what I’ve just said is true.”

Which I did to the delight and renewed vigor of my staff.

How? By telling my boss that I had a serious problem in my department that was affecting employee productivity and morale, and work quality – which is was. “What’s your recommendation?” he asked. “With your help,” I replied, “I think we can solve it in just one conversation – 10-15 minutes; 30, max. All you have to do is tell explain this…”

His reply: “Schedule it.”

One Last Point

In listening for ‘what bosses listen for’, it’s also helpful to hear what topics capture their immediate attention – even when they’re crazy-busy or just otherwise occupied. Things maybe like:

  • active problem updates
  • key information for important upcoming meetings
  • news about what one of their key stakeholders wants
  • explanations of extraordinary budget variances
  • progress in holding vendors to account
  • something urgent that s/he may find out or be asked about before your next scheduled meeting, together

Knowing these ‘hot topics’, or at least having a solid sense of them, can really help you communicate much more powerfully with your boss – especially at the very beginning of a conversation.

Give any of this a try and let me know what kind of traction you get from it.

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Leadership Move #27: Ask Probing Questions

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Sometimes it takes some digging to get to the root of things – and asking questions is a great way to do that.

But, not all questions are created equal.

  • Some questions are easy to answer but their answers provide little, if any, new insights.
    • Example: ‘Why’d ya do THAT?!’
    • The problem: Aside from the unavoidable judgment that will likely be in your tone, ‘why?’ questions, like these, tend to provide answers that are rarely of much help.
    • Better: ‘What did you learn for the next time?’ or some other question that encourages realizations and learning rather than excuses and justifications.
  • Some questions are easy to ask, but too hard to succinctly answer.
    • Example: ‘What specific steps did you take that resulted in this mess?’
    • The problem: In trying to get the details right, key insights are often lost or overlooked by both those explaining and listening to the explanation.
    • Better: ‘When did things start going sideways?’ or something that gets them to summarize the core issues of what they have to share.
  • Some questions make it too easy to get only part of the story – especially if you’re curiosity quotient is a bit low.
    • Example: ‘Did you address that customer issue I told you about?’
    • The problem: Closed-ended questions (ones that enables a yes- or no-type response) allow the person you’re asking to omit key information. You may get a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, but you still won’t know what they did, when they did it, how well they did it, who they talked with, etc.
    • Better: ‘How did you address that customer issue I told you about?’ or another open-ended type question to allows you to know enough to speak knowledgeably about the matter.

Follow Up with Follow-Up Questions

It’s always best to assume that the first few questions you ask – whatever questions they are – will provide you with some, but definitely not all, of what you need, answer-wise. That’s why probing follow-up questions are so important. It’s in THEIR answers that the real insight and understanding reside.

Not sure what probing follow-up question to ask next? Try any one of these:

  • ‘What ELSE do you want to add to what you’ve told me so far?’
  • ‘What OTHER questions would it make sense for me to ask or for you to answer?’
  • ‘HOW do you want to proceed at this point, then?’

See what those questions do to improve the breadth and depth of the information you receive.


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Leadership Move #20: Continue to Actively Learn

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Don’t kind yourself – You can’t succeed if you don’t continue to learn.

Although a lot of success comes from doing what you already know to do, that’s merely table stakes. Necessary, but insufficient.

The ‘Been There Done That’ Mistake

When someone assumes that what worked to solve yesterday’s problems is sufficient for solving today’s problems, they’re truly asking for trouble:

  1. A quick fix, based on “what’s worked in the past,” typically treats only the symptoms of the problem. And symptoms have a tendency to reappear until the underlying problem is actually addressed.
  2. Today’s problems are decidedly complex and subtle, so simply trying to overlay “what’s worked in the past” is not only unimaginative and unproductive, it’s likely also fraught with several unintended consequences which might just make things worse than they already are.
  3. While what you already know might work just fine, it leaves the opportunity of being STELLAR just sitting there for someone ELSE to pick up and run with.

Yesterday’s News is OLD News

Your challenge, then, is to find (and help create) NEW solutions – not just provide the same ol’ same ol’. (Sure, ‘consistency’ matters, but ‘sameness’ can create a slippery slope of a lackluster reputation.)

So in order to meet challenges you face, you need to go further.

  • You need to expand your understanding of the issues at hand and what made them that way
  • You need to be able to recognize and apply relevant insights gleaned from tangential sources
  • You need to creatively brainstorm the possibilities
  • You need to find not just A way, but a BETTER way

“If All You Have is a Hammer, All Your Problems Will Look Like Nails”

There are some very important reasons to keep expanding what you know:

  1. People who are actively learning tend to be in a better mood, demonstrate more of an ability to think on their feet, and generally get more done.
  2. People who are actively learning tend to connect better with those around them – which greatly facilitates teamwork and collaboration.
  3. People who are actively learning naturally encourage others to actively learn, and perform at a higher level, as well

So Where CAN You Learn?

The short answer is EVERYWHERE:

  • friends
  • coworkers
  • staff
  • bosses
  • customers
  • vendors
  • books
  • articles
  • trade journals
  • magazines
  • television
  • podcasts
  • TED Talks
  • radio
  • CDs
  • DVDs
  • audio-books
  • e-books
  • hobbies
  • your company’s training department
  • the Internet
  • continuing ed classes
  • textbooks
  • computer-based training
  • manuals
  • SMEs (subject matter experts)
  • white papers
  • mentors
  • your coach!
  • spending some time just quietly thinking

And this is hardly an exhaustive list.

Expanding Your Toolkit

To become (or continue to be) a more compelling leader, you simply must keep learning.

There’s no shortcut. But it’s not that difficult.

You really just have to get curious about something – and then start wondering about it!

Ready? GO!

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Leadership Move #16: Brainstorm WITH

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Much has been said about ‘brainstorming’ – and much actually misses the point!

Brainstorming is “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group,” and is an excellent way to teach your staff how to think more creatively, constructively, deeply, widely, strategically, consistently and a variety of other adverbs that you’d like them to be able to do when they think through the issues and implications they face.

But when they don’t already know how to brainstorm effectively, what’s a boss to do?

  1. You can brainstorm FOR them – This is how most bosses do it. Rather than coach, mentor, teach, or show how to analyze and assess, most bosses just answers all the questions and surface all the options themselves. Staff’s role is to just back and wait. Does this work? Well, up to a point, yes it does – if by ‘yes’ you mean it brings everyone up to speed on a topic. But if you think it through, you’ll realize that this particular approach actually teaches staff how NOT to think, how NOT to wonder, and how NOT to consider much on their own. Why? Because the boss is already doing all the work (and seems to WANT to do all the work) so staff says, ‘Fine, YOU do it, then.’
  2. You can tell them to brainstorm by THEMSELVES – For more advanced teams, this is actually the choice of choice. But many work groups honestly don’t know where to start or don’t know what to do when the nay-saying kicks in. So for this lesser experienced teams, not much really gets accomplished when the boss just throws an issue ‘over the wall’ like that. In fact, many teams will procrastinate, if not entirely ignore your request, in hopes you’ll either forget about it or will revert back to brainstorming FOR them once they’re reminded.
  3. You can brainstorm WITH them – The idea, here, is to help them get started by framing the issue, providing a possible implication, and then encouraging THEM to identify additional implications, instead of just waiting for you. (Sure, you likely already have some really good ideas, but delegating is not about what YOU know or can conjure; it’s about helping them access what THEY know and what THEY can conjure. So, please, resist the temptation to be the smartest person in the room.) Too, since brainstorming is more about surfacing ideas than evaluating them, it’s important to show how to create a ‘safe place’ for staff to flex their mental muscles in this new way. Your job is NOT to discount – or let anyone else discount – someone else’s ideas – the evaluative/vetting stage comes later. At this point, your job is to simply keep things from getting bogged down.

Increasing the Flow of Ideas

Here are some quick and easy ways to keep the dialogue going:

  • say you’ll brainstorm together, but they need to go first
  • for every 2-3 ideas they they come up with, offer no more than one of yours
  • make sure new ideas build prior ones rather than rejecting them out-of-hand
  • encourage wacky thinking – the more outrageous the better! – and enjoy a good laugh at the outrageousness
  • encourage the ‘quiet’ people to contribute as well (“What might we be missing, Mary?” or “What are you thinking, Steve?”)
  • don’t fear silence – sometimes people need time to think and gather their thoughts
  • if you think they’ve stalled, get them to move around, change chairs, stretch, take a break, doodle – whatever helps reinvigorate the mood
  • and don’t lose track of the fact that the goal, at this point, is idea GENERATION, not option prudency. (There’s time for that later.)

Practice, Practice, Practice

If your staff has trouble brainstorming, you may want to INCREASE the amount of brainstorming they do. As people tend to engage more readily with issues that are already relevant to them, tell them you want to help them practice. Then ask them problems they’re having, what opportunities they see, what they’re worried will happen next and suggest you all just kick around some possibilities. Or you could just do it in stealth mode, by asking them, more readily, for THEIR views on a problem or opportunity that’s on your radar.

Remember, the point of the exercise is to get them comfortable with thinking out loud, more insightfully, more strategically, and in increasingly nuanced ways. So start with something other than your Number One high-profile priority. Brainstorming is a skill and to develop fully, skills must be practiced.So don’t worry if it’s slow-going at first. That’s natural.

Learning, after all, is an iterative process – one that brainstorming can definitely facilitate!


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