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Manager As Coach

Boosting your review conversations

By Mark McKergow, Centre for Solutions Focus at Work

Published in Coaching At Work, March 2009 p56

Reviewing progress is an important part of any manager's role. You will, I am sure, be familiar with some of the structured ways to carry out a review, including the almost-ubiquitous After Action Review. This was first introduced by the American Army in the mid 1970's as a way of capturing lessons from simulated battles. It is now used my many organisations as way of building learning in the middle or at the end of projects.
The classic structure is very simple:

  • What did we set out to achieve?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What are we going to do next time?

The aim of these questions is admirable. However, in practice there can be a risk of the discussion turning into a mix of blaming, scapegoating, shared misunderstanding and general buck-passing - particularly in the 'why did it happen' phase. To increase the effectiveness of reviews, I and my colleagues at sfwork have been experimenting with different twists on this basic framework. We call our latest version the Project Booster.

1. What were we trying to do from everyone's perspective, and what would have been a 10 out of 10?

Many of the managers with whom I work think they can skip over this quickly, as it's quite clear what we were trying to do; "I told them...". They are then amazed when it turns out that not everyone shared their clarity! Include the perspectives of everyone present as a minimum. Additionally, bringing in views from different stakeholder groups helps set the situation in context. It can be important to remember back to the situation as it was at the start - things do inevitably move on, and what seemed like an excellent idea then may not seem so now - but nonetheless, that was the objective.

2. On a scale of 1-10, how did we do?

You can break this into a number of categories if required. Indeed, breaking it down into elements can help focus the learning on both areas that went well and those which did not. Involve those present in the discussion of the categories.

Of course, people are people and you can expect a few moves in the direction of justification, finger-pointing and analysing what went wrong. There may also be a temptation to debate the numbers. Avoid the temptation to go down these routes. The key thing to remember is that the actual numbers, surprisingly, don't really matter. They are a conversational device, designed to lead into the next phase.

3. How come it's that high? What else? What else?

Prepare for a lot of blank faces when you ask this. After all, we're here to learn about what not to do next time, right? Wrong. The key learning lies in large part in what TO do next time. So be prepared to be patient, and stuck with this line of inquiry for a while. Get as long a list as you can, in each area. This is where the group often shifts markedly towards a state of possibility and optimism.

Of course, people will be tempted to mention things not to repeat. That's OK, you can quietly note them down and put them into the discussion at the fourth and final phase.

4. What do we need to remember for next time? How could we let other people know?

After the previous discussions, this phase usually comes into place quickly. The answers are quite clear from what's been said in steps 2 and 3. What to remember for next time is a useful phrase - it includes things to keep doing, things to do more of and even things to avoid...as long as they are phrased as 'so to avoid this, what we need to REMEMBER to do is....'.

We have added in the piece about letting other people know as it gives the action junkies something to do right away (and therefore keeps them interested). Everyone else can be content to take the learning and use it at the appropriate time and place.

My thanks to Trevor Durnford for his work on using and developing the Project Booster in action.

Dr Mark McKergow is director of sfwork, the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work and co-author of several books on Solution Focused practice including The Solutions Focus (Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2007).


If you wish to cite this article, please use the following reference
McKergow, MW (2009), Coaching At Work 4 No 2 p 52

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