When we return to work in January we enjoy swapping stories of our Christmas holidays with our colleagues. But have you noticed that they only get interesting when something unexpected happens? When Chris responded to my question “How was Christmas?” with a “We did the usual: my Mum & Dads for lunch and her parents for Boxing day”, the conversation quickly moved on. But when Shelia said “We got a call on Christmas Eve to say Granddad was coming out of hospital, so we had a mad dash to put up all the decorations for granny so it looked lovely when he arrived home ” the story is immediately more interesting and I wanted to hear more.

This is because we are innately attracted to novelty. The thousands of years early humans spent in physically hostile environments have wired our brains to notice anything that is outside of the ordinary. Our lives used to depend on it, and we suffered very quickly if we didn’t notice the signs that the cave we expected  to sleep in turned out to the home of a grumpy bear.  Nowadays the gap between what we expected and what actually happens might not have such apparently drastic outcomes for ourselves, but in business terms, it is what reaches every boardroom table and it’s what reaches the front and back pages of our newspapers and it is at the heart of an approach to improving patient safety taken by one of the most successful of the NHS Foundation Trusts, University College London Hospitals.

In the highly political and rapidly changing healthcare business, they understood there was a need to develop a “learning culture” to support its staff to “mind the gap” between the standards of care expected by patients and the times when these weren’t met.  Using an approach they borrowed from the armed forces called  the After Action Review (AAR), they have provided staff with a simple  but highly effective tool which creates a  blame free environment for learning using four apparently simple questions. It’s been incorporated into the everyday language of the organisation and allowed for rapid and real learning to take place. However, the strength of the AAR approach is not in the four questions themselves but lies in the skills of the person who facilitates the discussion and keeps the focus on learning and away from blame.

I use this approach to support many clients within the NHS and outside, to extract maximum learning  from the gaps between expectations and reality and it is remarkable to see what happens. Why don’t you try it next time something doesn’t go to plan? There will definitely be an interesting story to tell as a result 

And in case you are wondering, Shelia’s Granddad was delighted to be in his beautifully decorated home for Christmas, but he slept for most of the day, waking up just for lunch and a cracker.

Having helped with the development and roll out of the AAR programme at UCLH, we at iTS Leadership have developed this further for implementation in the business world.  Teams and individuals who have experienced this have rated it as one of the best days development in their career!  If you would like to know more then please get in touch.