How Smart People Learn from Their Decisions

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Talk to those with military experience about missions and decisions and they’ll refer to the after-action reports, dutifully completed after every event. The purpose, of course, is to learn from what took place. What worked? What didn’t work? What did they need that they didn’t have? What did they carry that seemed unnecessary? And so on. Many other government agencies and corporations now emulate this practice.

I’ve seen a similar pattern in those I’ve interviewed over time who seem to be the best decision makers in their environments. Upon the resolution of a project or event in which they have played a significant role, these individuals take the time to evaluate what happened and codify what they’ve learned. In the hustle of today’s busy world, this is not always easy. But they find it essential to their professional growth. Each one has a bit of a different approach. Some are more formal than others. Each one, however, maintains the discipline to do it.

The four elements each one includes are as follows: 1) They allot the time. They don’t wait for the time to open up. It never will. Sometimes they take a few minutes. Sometimes this exercise consumes an hour or more. But they get it done. 2) They seek peace and quiet. Rather than trying to check this off while driving home, they find a place where they won’t be distracted. One has told me about a coffee shop where she can sit anonymously and concentrate. Another has told me he hides in the study carrels at the local library. In almost all cases, these individuals physically remove themselves from the work environment.

3) They keep a log dedicated to this exercise, which allows them to periodically review what they’re learning. Typically, this is a notebook or a bound diary which has the feel of being more formal and organized than jotted notes. 4) They discuss their insights with a few people they trust for both validation and different perspectives. As one person put it, “Sometimes you’re too close to the situation to realize what you’ve really learned. It takes someone else to point out the nuances.”

This is not rocket science. It does, however, require consistency, discipline and an openness to reflecting on even the most uncomfortable experiences. But this is another way the best decision makers thrive.

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