After Action Review: Is There an Elephant in the Room?

After every major event, good organizations and teams take a moment and very deliberately review what happened in an After Action Review.  In this way, they can keep getting better.  It’s a great process, but there’s an elephant in the room that can keep it from working.  Today we’re going to talk about what that is, and the one thing you can do to make sure your review session is effective in improving your team’s performance.

After Action Review: A Pause to Reflect

The Army instituted the idea of an After Action Review in the 1970s to help pull it out of it’s post-Vietnam funk.  Many say it is the single most important thing the Army did to revitalize itself.

After every major event, they pause and gather to talk about what happened.  They try to identify what went well so they can keep doing that.  And also what went not-so-well, and how to do better the next time around.

Good organizations have been doing this now for a while, too.  It’s a great tool.  But the only way for this system to really work is to do it in an environment that allows for brutally frank conversation.

Good After Action Reviews require brutally frank conversation. Click To Tweet

There has to be an atmosphere of transparency, selflessness, and candor.  Team members need to feel free to challenge current ways of thinking and performing.  It may even be that the boss was the one who messed up.

But nobody is going to say anything if they fear they will be hammered for it later.  It’s the elephant in the room.

Lose the Rank

In the military, the rigid rank structure and protocols help make sure the mission gets carried out, but they can also be a big barrier to communication.

Here’s one way my friends in the Air Force have found to solve this problem.  Before going into a review session, they take off their rank.  As they walk into the debriefing room they physically remove it and stick it to the wall outside.

It is a powerful symbolic way for the leaders to communicate that what is important during the discussion is the honest truth, nothing else.  If anyone, especially the leader, is making errors that endanger the mission, he needs to be open and willing to hear it.

Of course not all leaders are wearing uniforms with rank insignia attached with Velcro.  How else can you establish this safe environment?

  • Set the Rules – Start by reminding people about the rules for the session – it’s not about ego or position, it’s about getting better as a team.
  • Set the Example – be the first to admit an error or point out an area you might have done better
  • Ask for Feedback – Ask for honest feedback on how you can perform your role better
  • Have a Thick Skin – don’t get defensive; listen carefully, acknowledge what was said, and thank them for their observation
  • Be willing to change – If you aren’t, everyone is just wasting time.

The Takeaway

When you put your ego and rank aside, and establish a climate where everything is open to examination, your team truly be able to discuss what needs to be fixed.  And only then will you really be able to move forward.

So when it comes time for your After Action Review, be sure to leave your rank on the wall outside the room, go in with an open mind focused on helping the team.

Want a good After Action Review? Leave your rank outside the room. Click To Tweet

Thanks for listening, and if you liked this video, there are lots more free videos, blog posts, and resources over at where we try to “Accelerate the Leader to Excellence” by making the learning curve a little less steep.  Check it out now, and I’ll see you next time.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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