constructive criticism

A military innovation that business leaders should copy

December 9, 2013: 3:04 PM ET

Simulating real-world scenarios, and talking about what went wrong, can vastly improve performance.

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large

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A pilot tests a simulator in a F-35 cockpit

FORTUNE -- Just back from Orlando, where I was touring the world's largest trade show of simulation and training technology for the military. It's all based on the same central idea: helping warfighters learn critical skills -- piloting a fighter jet, treating injuries on the battlefield, shooting bad guys who are holding hostages, negotiating with a village leader -- in settings where they can make their mistakes without hurting anyone. The technology, some of which I tried out, is often stunningly realistic. I won't report on my performance except to say that when it comes to landing an F-35 on an aircraft carrier, I have quite a lot of work to do.

The opportunities for businesses to improve people's performance dramatically through simulation are glaringly obvious, yet few business leaders know anything about them. As a first step toward capitalizing on what the military has learned about training -- before even thinking about the technology -- consider a remark by Tom Baptiste, a retired Air Force general who heads the National Center for Simulation. "In simulation of any kind, all the learning comes in the after-action review," he told me. "But some people just won't do it."

He's talking about the practice, after every training exercise (and every real engagement), of gathering all those involved and reviewing with unsparing frankness what worked and what didn't. Who screwed up? How can it be avoided? What worked great? How can it be expanded? Without that discussion, individuals and teams don't learn.

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A big problem is that those at high levels may figure they have more to lose than to gain from the process. In medical simulations, which have become highly realistic and are not for the squeamish, some surgeons have zero interest in being videotaped and hearing their performance scrutinized afterward. In battle simulations, top officers are sometimes portrayed by surrogates because the actual brass won't participate. Too much to lose, not enough to gain.

Except that their teams are losing in a big way. If those leaders think they can't get any better, they're guaranteed not to get any better. Their teams won't learn to work better with them. Team members will learn what their organization really values, and it isn't improvement.

Which leads to a few hard questions for leaders: In our organization do we hold truly honest, no-rank-in-the-room discussions of our performance? Is it culturally even possible? Am I modeling the behavior I want to see?

No organization will get much better until the answers to those questions are right. How is yours doing?

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