If at first you do succeed - analyse, learn and succeed again


Think of a time when you feel you didn’t do something well.

What did it feel like?  How much time did you spend analysing it, talking about it, going over it?

Now think of something that you did really well, something at work that you really nailed and are proud of! How much time did you spend analysing it and really understanding what made it go so well? 

We can spend a lot of time analysing why something went wrong -  far more than we spend analysing and understanding what we did well.  We often do this as organisations too. Think about a project that is delivered that is not very successful, it’s over budget and over time – what do we tend to do? We set up a group to analyse why that happened – in detail we discuss what we need to put in place to ensure it does not happen again. How many groups have you been to that scrutinise a project that has gone very well – meetings that spend time analysing the details of what made a project succeed?

But why would we do that? Isn’t doing something well just what we are expected to do? What is the point of analysing it too much? Don’t we learn better and more from our mistakes? 

Focusing on success

The evidence doesn’t necessarily back that up.  Increasingly there is a body of evidence called appreciative inquiry that suggests analysing excellence, success and what is working is as effective, perhaps more effective, in helping us to grow and develop as focusing on what is going wrong.  It is certainly more uplifting, inspiring and motivating.

If focusing on what works helps us as individuals and organisations to innovate, grow and change is perhaps more effective than focusing on what is not working, it’s easy to put into practice, right?

Is it easy to change?

In some ways the science is against us because we are programmed to notice and focus on our mistakes. Our brains are hard-wired to pick up and try and avoid danger – the fight or flight response responsible for many of our innate actions.  We are programmed to protect ourselves and making mistakes can get us into bother, so we feel it, remember it and want to avoid it. We are therefore on the lookout for mistakes more than we are on the lookout for success!

In some ways we need to re-train our brains to really notice and focus on what is working. This means creating new neural pathways in our brain. To do that we need repetition to reinforce the new neural pathways. Practice is critical.

It also takes time. Just focusing on what works is a start but what really helps us to grow and learn is the detail. We need to understand and analyse the success with the same detail and focus that we would when analysing failure. That too takes practice and a little skill.

Sometimes it can seem really hard to find things that are working and it is much easier to focus on the things that are going wrong.  While this is true, it is amazing how when you choose to look out for and notice what might be going well – there is usually something you notice.

Giving feedback

Here is a quick example of trying this approach…

You attend a presentation given by a colleague. They ask you to provide feedback because they trust you to tell them the truth. You notice that your colleague is very animated during the presentation – perhaps too animated! The content is good but you are a bit distracted by the big arm gestures, they are moving around a lot, speaking quite quickly at times, not pausing enough. However very occasionally you notice your colleague pausing, speaking a bit slower, standing still or walking around a little. They even gesticulate a little less.  They approach you afterwards and ask “So I know it was ok but how can I make my presentations better?”  You know you can be completely honest with them so how do you respond?

Do you help them by focusing on the mistakes? “I think you could make your presentation better if you didn’t speak so quickly, moved around less, stopped using your arms so much and paused more” or do you help them by focusing on what works? “Well I noticed that every now and then you paused, you stood still or walked slowly around looking at the audience. You kept your arms to your side or used a small gesture. When you were doing these things you made much more impact so I think you could make your presentation better by doing more of those things”.

What do you think would work for you?

Putting learning into practice

Start with yourself.

  • Notice, analyse and write down when you do things really well.
  • What skills did you use?
  • What did others do to help you do well?
  • What did you learn about what makes you work really well?

Grab a friend to help you analyse it if you find it difficult on your own. The point is not to brag or big yourself up. The point is to help you grow, develop, contribute even more effectively and be your best self.

Then move onto others.

  • Start to really notice what it is that helps others to do well, the detail of what they do well or enquire into what helps them to work well.
  • Tell them what you notice and talk about the detail so people can do more of it.
  • Encourage them to be their best self by helping them to know the detail of what they do well!

Focusing on what works does not mean you cannot address problems or mistakes. It is just a different way of problem solving. Instead of fixing the problem through analysing the problem it seeks to solve a problem by understanding the moments when things are working and building on those. Dealing with problems and mistakes is not avoided – it is just dealt with differently and hopefully, more effectively.

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