The After Action Review: A Leader’s Guide

How do you improve your team with an After Action Review?

The After Action Review (AAR) is a deceptively simple yet powerful way to stimulate the growth and performance of any group of people.  As an organizational learning tool it has been used to transform small teams and entire armies into high performers.   But as with anything, success comes in the doing, and not everyone does these well.

Today we’ll try to change some thinking about the AAR, and arm you with some techniques that you can put into effective practice with your own team.  If you don’t get it right the first time, a good AAR can at least improve your odds the second time around.

After Action Review - A Leader's Guide

The After Action Review – Engine of Change

The After Action Review has been credited with helping pull the U.S. Army out of its post-Vietnam funk.  By the time I joined up in the 1980s, the AAR was a way of life and part of the natural order of the universe.  We did them all the time, whether it was after our morning physical fitness regime, or deep in the woods during a training exercise.

The Army honed its concept of the AAR at a desert training facility in Nevada, where a professional Opposition Force (OPFOR) took on visiting army units.  At the beginning of a training rotation, the OPFOR routinely trounced the visitors.  But by the end it became much harder to predict the outcome, and sometimes the visitors would win.

The thing that accelerated those units through the learning curve was the AAR.

When done well, AARs can work for anybody and in any situation.  You can harvest new knowledge gathered in near real time.  You can then channel that knowledge back into your process so that each iteration of whatever it is that you do gets successively better and better.

But many organizations have difficulty in applying the AAR concept effectively, and the same lessons learned are learned over and over again at great expense in time and money.   Let’s see if we can change that.

It’s Not the Last Thing You Do

First this:  successful operations begin with the AAR.

Sure, the AAR actually takes place after everything has happened, but that’s not where the real value of the practice occurs.  It comes before all the action.

If we want to lead learning organizations, one of the first questions out of our mouths at the outset of a new enterprise should be, “What did we learn last time?”

If you do an AAR well, then the discussion results in Lessons-Learned.  But as Colonel Joseph Moore reminds us, those lessons aren’t truly learned until you put them into practice, and that happens at the beginning of the next cycle.

The true value of the AAR comes at the beginning of the cycle, not at the end. Click To Tweet

So as you are sitting down to talk about what just happened, keep in mind that your goal is to teach your future selves how to do it better the next time around.

It’s Part of the Plan

The second thing is to make them a regular thing.  One AAR won’t solve all your problems.  The key is in the iteration.  Treat every event as an opportunity for learning, and then dedicate some time to make sure that happens.  Here are some thoughts on planning these.

Timing:  Sooner = Better.  The sooner you do one after a key event the better; wait too long and memories start to fade and distractions creep in.

Frequency:  Often.  Don’t wait for the end of a large project.  Do them after every significant milestone or event; use the results to feed back into the decision cycle for the next round.  Do them weekly if not daily.  Do them so often that those in the room can recite the ground rules from memory.

Require it.  In the Army, if we submitted a plan that did not include a plan to have AARs, we were sure to be told to “try again.”  Planning to learn is a critical element of organizational learning; make sure you are blocking out the time to do this.  Plans are not complete without them.

Planning to learn helps you learn to plan. Click To Tweet

Limit the length.  Keep it short and to the point; you are not looking for a five-hour detailed post-mortem; you want to grab the key learning points, figure out how to use them in the future, then keep moving forward.  For small events, 20-30 minutes is a good target; try to keep it under an hour for larger operations.

Make it a Habit.  As you do more of these, let it become a habit.  Like football players watching game film, everyone knows it’s just what you do to get better.

Treat every event as an opportunity for learning. Click To Tweet

Who’s in the Room?

When filling the room for the AAR, the goal is to encourage candid, engaged conversation from 360 degrees.  Here’s how.

Limit the size.  Smaller groups are better; if you get much above 12 people in the room, not everyone can fully participate.  If lots of people were involved, encourage AARs at other echelons or by functional teams.  Leaders from these teams can share what they learned at higher level AARs, so do the lowest level ones first.

Key players.  It’s important to get key players in the room who can talk about how things went from their perspective.  If they made critical decisions (or could have) they should be in the room.

The customer.   In Army training, we always made sure the leader of the OPFOR was in the room.  Who better to tell you how you did than the customer you were trying to service?  Set aside a seat for your customer, and invite their input.

Despite our best plans, the customer casts the deciding vote. Click To Tweet

Moderator.  For small teams, it’s simplest for the leader to lead the discussion.  As you move up the food chain, it can be better to have a moderator direct the process.  Someone respected who is familiar with the action but not part of it can help set an environment of impartiality.

Setting the Scene

In desert training we did our After Action Reviews on site even while the dust was still settling.  Then, within an hour or two, senior leaders were whisked off to a fully instrumented mobile video van hidden behind a hill not far away for higher level AARs.  Here are some thoughts about setting the scene for your After Action Review.

Do it on-location.  Ideally, have your AAR right where the action occurred. This makes it convenient for everyone since they are already there, and if a question comes up about “what happened where,” everything is in sight to help jog memories.

Re-create the environment.  If having the AAR on location is not feasible, it can help to have tools handy that help re-create what it was like.  Have maps, sketches, photos, video, physical products, or other pertinent items on hand.  If you had a model that you used during planning, drag it back out when you discuss how the plan turned out.

Minimize disruption.  Obviously, but worth saying anyway.

Face each other.  Sitting “audience style” puts the focus in the wrong place – away from team members.  Sitting so that you can see each other improves communication and engagement.  This is a discussion, not a presentation.

After Action Review: It’s a discussion, not a presentation. Click To Tweet

It’s a team event.  I’ve heard stories of “AARs” done via exit interviews, surveys, and individual reports.  The problem with these is that they are often done in isolation, they can be self-serving, and the chance of anyone actually reading them or learning from them is low.  You’ll spend a lot less energy and get a better product if you invest the time to do this as a group.

Record the lessons.  Have some way to record what you are learning.  Make it visible to all as you are talking.  Easels, white boards, or projectors all work well.  Keep it simple and constantly visible to help focus the discussion.

Ground Rules for the After Action Review

Put on your thick skin.  The point of the exercise is to find ways to do things better, not to find fault with specific people.  Keep the focus on actions, not personalities.  If it turns out someone could have done something better, don’t get offended, get better.

Don't get offended. Get better. Click To Tweet

Leave your rank outside the room.  Sometimes the least helpful participant can be the leader himself.  If you dominate the discussion and have a ready explanation for everything, you are not helping.  A defensive attitude will serve to silence everyone else.  Perhaps the best thing you can do is leave your rank outside the room, break out your listening skills, and treat this as a learning opportunity.

Candor is king.  Something else you can do that would be very helpful is to admit a mistake.  The sooner in the discussion you do this the better.  When you make it OK to be honest about the errors you made, you are more likely to get the straight story from others, too.

Show respect.  Everyone’s perspectives and experiences will be different.  Respect others and what they have to share.  Most people don’t wake up in the morning planning to be the monkey wrench thrower, so give them the benefit of the doubt.

Everybody plays.  This is not the time for wall flowers or a peanut gallery.  If someone is in the room, they should be there to contribute.  If they aren’t talking, ask for their opinion.

Focus on what you can impact.  It’s pointless to complain about the weather or what the market did.  Focus instead on how you could prepare better next time around.

Take notes.  Everyone should be doing this.  The point is to learn and remember for next time.  It’s a good idea to have a recorder capturing the main notes for the group.

Go from specific to general.  Talk about the specific things that happened, but then generalize to a truth that you can apply the next time.   A freak snow storm may have caused your outdoor reception to go bad, but the lessons you derive should have more to do with developing a process for checking the forecast and an indoor backup plan, not having crates of snowshoes on hand just in case.

Conducting the After Action Review

Start the session by focusing on what you want to get out of it.  A good practice is to zero in on three “sustains” – things that went well that you definitely want to keep doing, and three “improves” – things to be changed next time around.  Here’s the sequence.

Review the mission. State briefly what you were trying to accomplish and how things were supposed to look at the end of the day.  What was the expected end-state?  Bonus points if someone other than the leader can explan what it was.  In fact, I dare you to ask someone else to do this…

Describe how things actually ended up.  If you have some facts and figures, this is a good time to share them, but keep it brief.  How did it actually turn out?  If you have someone who can speak for the customer, ask how they felt about the end result.

Ask “What went well?”  These are your “sustains” or “Best Practices” – things you want to be sure you keep doing.  Identify not only what it was, but why it worked out so well so you can replicate it in the future.  Try to capture three distinct lessons.

Ask “What could we do better next time?”  These are the “Improves” – things to avoid next time around.  Dig into the areas where there were shortcomings, get people talking about why things went that way, and develop at least three concete ideas for doing it better.

Keep the discussion open and moving; try not to fixate on one area for too long.  As you isolate a Sustain or Improve, have a recorder put it up on the chart for all to see.

After Action Reviews – The Takeaway

In the end, it’s really pretty simple.  Soon after an event concludes, while you still have everyone’s attention, get the key players together, and have a candid discussion about what happened.

If you follow the rules and have the right people in the room, in a fairly short time, you can get to the core of why things turned out the way that they did.

Just remember that the true value comes the next time you get ready to start the cycle.

The lesson is not truely learned until the behavior changes. Click To Tweet

The point where your teammates find value in the process is when they see that you took their input seriously enough to make changes going into the next cycle.  When that happens, engagement and commitment begin to rise.

So before you start anything, begin by asking “what did we learn the last time?” and you will increase the odds that things will turn out even better for your team this time around.

Lead on!

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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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