QUESTION EVERYTHING, EVEN WHEN EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT

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THE DANGER OF COMPLACENCY

I’m on a mission to empower organizations and individuals to safeguard their success. One of the fiercest threats to that success is complacency. Complacency is all around us, always. Lurking. Stalking. Waiting for the right conditions in which it can grab hold and sabotage us.

The irony of complacency is that it’s bred from success. The more successful we are, the more vulnerable we become to the over-confidence, self-satisfaction, and smugness that creates a culture of complacency.

And make no mistake about it. Complacency is dangerous. It has the power to destroy organizations, businesses, brands, and personal relationships.

In my 30+ years in business, marketing, and entrepreneurship, I never really pieced this together. It wasn’t until I became a Reserve Sheriff’s Deputy (at the ripe age of 45) that I learned all about the dangers of complacency and, more importantly, how to identify it and fight it with vigilance. The translation of those learnings to business and life became the basis for my book, Be Vigilant! Strategies to Stop Complacency, Improve Performance, and Safeguard Success.

The book is filled with strategies you can implement right now to help fight complacency in your business and in your life. One of the most powerful, and easily implemented, is the practice of debriefing.

THE POWER OF DEBRIEFING, AND WHY YOU’RE LIKELY DOING IT WRONG

I can remember the exact moment I realized the power of debriefs in fighting complacency. I was working patrol when a shots fired call came out. It was the middle of the day in a residential neighborhood and our response was swift and broad. The first personnel went right to the threat. The next units set up a perimeter. The shooter had entered a house and was alone.

SWAT arrived, eventually made entry, and the incident was concluded. From most perspectives, we did everything correctly. No innocent citizens were hurt, no deputies were injured, and the situation was resolved without our firing a single shot.

With all the resources tied up on this one incident, it might be understandable if the first thought of command staff was now to get everyone back to work. But no.

The order came out over the radio: Everyone on the call was to head directly to the substation for a debrief.

We went through the entire call. We talked about what went right, what went wrong, and what went right by accident or even despite mistakes we had made. We talked about what we would do differently.

We went around the room and every person, regardless of rank, had the opportunity to speak about the good and the bad of this call and what the implications were.

And then we went back to work.

Take note, the debriefing took place while everything was still fresh. It involved everyone without respect to seniority. And it took place after a call where we seemingly did everything correctly.

If you’re like most organizations, if you debrief today, it’s probably only after perceived failures. This approach is designed to find out what went wrong and how to fix it. It’s not usually done immediately, and it’s probably not an open forum. In fact, the people in charge of debriefing have probably already decided what went wrong, and the debriefing may really be about placing blame.

This tendency to focus energy only on debriefing things that were perceived to go wrong strongly links back to complacency. It’s why most organizations don’t spend time on debriefing things that go right. Success is usually seen as self-explanatory. I mean, if the results were positive, we must’ve done things right. Right?

Wrong. We frequently get positive results from less-than-optimal performances. Professional athletes understand this. Football players spend hours studying film from previous games. They break down their play and look for mistakes. They look for mental errors, breakdowns in technique, and anything that can be improved upon.

And they don’t just do this when they lose. They understand, even in victory, there are things that can be improved. They understand that just because they had more points than their competition, it doesn’t mean they did everything right. In fact, they may have played poorly, but the other team just played worse. Or they got a lucky bounce of the ball. Or they got a favorable referee decision. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter that they got the win. They know they still need to look for ways to improve. It’s just as important to look for the things that went right so they can identify them and figure out how to create situations that make it more likely that those things will happen again.

VIGILANCE IS QUESTIONING EVERYTHING, EVEN WHEN EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT

Once we experience success and stop questioning, we become vulnerable to complacency. We start to believe that what we’ve done in the past is the roadmap to the future – simply because it seemingly worked (sidenote – this is called survivorship bias and it’s so important I devoted an entire chapter in Be Vigilant! to it). This attitude is dangerous. It blinds us to threats. It impedes progress.

We understand this in law enforcement. Athletes understand this. Debriefing is part of the culture of the military. It’s even become widely accepted in the medical world.

On its Patient Safety Network, the agency for Healthcare Research and Quality states:

Although real-time or near real-time clinical event debriefing can be challenging to implement, it has been identified as an important aspect of effective clinical education, quality improvement, and systems learning. It is important to note that debriefing can be a useful learning tool in cases where things go well, with near misses, and in cases that involve adverse events.

(“Debriefing for Clinical Learning,” Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), updated September 2019, https://psnet.ahrq.gov/primer/debriefing-clinical-learning)

The process of questioning things that go right is not natural to us. We’re more programmed to focus on solving things that go wrong.

As a result, we need to be intentional about making debriefs a regular part of our business. We must be disciplined about evaluating our missions. Debriefs must become part of our culture so it’s not even a question as to when or if they will take place. They become automatic.

But, even then, debriefs can easily go wrong and become a waste of time. To help you avoid the pitfalls, here are seven ways you can be more successful with debriefs.

  1. Understand your missions and find opportunities to debrief.
    You must be able to break down your business into distinct missions, identify starting and end points, and understand what the objectives were for each mission. Whatever the distinct events are, you must identify them to debrief them.
  2. Don’t make debriefing dependent on outcome.
    Resist the urge to only debrief missions that go wrong. Sometimes the greatest learnings come from the incidents that were perceived as most successful.
  3. Debrief frequently and as close to the incident as possible.
    Debrief in a timely manner. People should understand and expect that these debriefings will take place. Make them muscle memory, not just random events. When people know they’ll have an opportunity (and expectation) to discuss how things went afterwards, they’ll inevitably pay more attention to what’s going on around them – which is another critical component of avoiding complacency.
  4. Leave titles and ranks outside.
    No one’s opinion is worth more or less than anyone else’s. This is the only way everyone will feel comfortable enough to share. You may even find that the newest team members will be the ones to find that areas of improvement that everyone else have become blind to.
  5. Be clear on mission objectives.
    You need to understand desired outcomes to understand how well you fared against them.
  6. Incorporate structure into the meeting.
    It’s easy to get bogged down in what happened, why it happened, whose fault it was, etc. It’s important you get past that. Of course, you must start with the “what.” But make sure you move on to the “So what?” and, most importantly, the “Now what?”
  7. Share the findings broadly.
    The information collected during debriefing is not just for your team, your project, or your incident. Make sure the findings are shared more broadly to ensure everyone in the organization can learn and benefit.

EMBRACE DEBRIEFS TO REINFORCE A CULTURE THAT FIGHTS COMPLACENCY WITH VIGILANCE

Law enforcement. Military. Professional sports teams. The medical community. They all enthusiastically embrace the introspection and self-analyzing that comes along with the process of debriefing.

By taking some of the cues outlined above, you can now use the concepts more consistently and effectively in your business so that you can continually learn from your failures and your successes.

This will help in keeping your team members (or family members) actively engaged, aligned, motivated, and vigilant. And it will help you avoid the dangers of complacency!

By Len Herstein

Len Herstein has over 30 years of experience in business and brand marketing. Prior to founding his marketing and events company (ManageCamp Inc.), Len innovated, managed, and grew brands for major consumer packaged goods marketers, including Campbell Soup Company, Coca-Cola, and Nabisco. Since 2015, Len has served as a reserve deputy sheriff with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado. Learn more at lenherstein.com

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