After Action Reviews
“The Army's After Action Review (AAR) is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised. Yet, most every corporate effort to graft this truly innovative practices into their culture has failed because, again and again, people reduce the living practice of AAR's to a sterile technique.” — Peter Senge
The Army is probably one of the world's largest hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations, yet when it comes to training it has managed to flatten itself and become a horizontal organization. By performing After Action Reviews (AAR) after a training activity, it turns itself into a learning organization that involves all the participants, from the lowest-ranking soldiers, to commanders, to interested outsiders and observers. It focuses on the tasks and goals to discover why things happen. . . rather than to judge success or failure. An AAR is perhaps one of the ultimate performance improvement tools because it encourages all stakeholders to share and learn in order to have continuous improvement.
An AAR is an assessment conducted after a project or major activity that allows employees and leaders to discover and learn what happened and why. It may be thought of as a professional discussion of an event that enable employees to understand why things happened during the progression of the process and to learn from that experience. Examples of when to use it are: introduction of a new product line in a production facility, after a busy holiday season in a retail store, introduction of a new computer system upgrade, after a major training activity, a change in procedures, etc.
Photo by Fred W. Baker III and courtesy of U.S. Army
The key to an AAR is openness and honesty, which allows all the participants in the organization to participate (Walden, 2009). This, in turn, allows the organization to capture what really happened so that lessons may be learned. It affords leaders and partners an opportunity to gain maximum benefit from every program, activity, or task. It provides (USAID, 2006):
- Candid insights into specific strengths and weaknesses from various perspectives
- Feedback and insight critical to improved performance
- Details that are often lacking in evaluation reports alone
Also, the AAR does not have to be performed at the end of a project or activity. Rather, it can be performed after each identifiable event within a project or major activity, thus becoming a live learning process (the learning organization).
The AAR is a professional discussion that includes the participants and focuses directly on the tasks and goals. It is not a critique. In fact, it has several advantages over a critique:
- It does not judge success or failure.
- It attempts to discover why things happened.
- It focuses directly on the tasks and goals that were to be accomplished.
- It encourages employees to surface important lessons in the discussion.
- More employees participate so that more of the project or activity can be recalled and more lessons can be learned and shared.
As a leader, you are responsible for training your workforce. The AAR is a tool that can assist you with developing your employees. It does this by providing feedback. Normally, feedback should be direct and on-the-spot. Each time an incorrect performance is observed, it should be immediately corrected so that it will not interfere with future tasks. During major projects or activities, it is not always easy to notice incorrect performances. Indeed, in many cases, the correct performances will be unknown because these projects or activities are learning activities. That is why the AAR should be planned at the end of each activity or event. . . so that feedback can be provided, lessons can be learned, and ideas and suggestions can be generated so that the next project or activity will be an improved one.
An AAR is both an art and science. The art of an AAR is in the obtainment of mutual trust so that people will speak freely. Innovative behavior should be the norm. Problem solving should be pragmatic and employees should NOT be preoccupied with status, territory, or second guessing “what the leader will think.” There is a fine line between keeping the meeting from falling into chaos where nothing gets accomplished, to people treating each other in a formal and polite manner that masks issues (especially with the boss) where again, nothing real gets accomplished.
Steps for Conducting the AAR
An AAR may be formal or informal. Both follow the same format and involve the exchange of observations and ideas. However, formal ones are normally more structured and require planning. While informal ones are conducted anywhere, anytime, in order to provide quick learning lessons.
The chart below lists the steps for conduction an AAR. In addition, it includes an important next step — turn the lessons learned into learning experiments (Darling, Flanigan, 2008):
Guidelines for conducting AARs
- Gather all the players.
- Introduction and rules.
- Review events leading to the activity (what was supposed to happen).
- Give a brief statement of the specific activity.
- Summarize the key events. Encourage participation.
- Have junior leaders restate portions of their part of the activity.
- Do not turn it into a critique or lecture. The following will help:
- Ask why certain actions were taken.
- Ask how they reacted to certain situations.
- Ask when actions were initiated.
- Ask leading and thought-provoking questions.
- Exchange war stories (see note 1 below).
- Ask employees what happened in their own point of view.
- Relate events to subsequent results.
- Explore alternative courses of actions that might have been more effective.
- Complaints are handled positively.
- When the discussion turns to errors made, emphasize the positive and point out the difficulties of making tough decisions.
- Allow junior leaders to discuss the events with their people in private.
- Follow-up on needed actions.
Note 1. Tacit knowledge is personal experiences that cannot be articulated very easily as it is too deeply entwined and embedded in the person. One of the best ways to help transfer it to others is through the use of stories (narratives), which have the power to draw others into the personal experiences of the story teller.
If you become an AAR facilitator, which every leader needs to do:
- Remain unbiased throughout the review.
- Try to speak to draw out comments from all.
- Do NOT allow personal attacks (critiquing an idea is fine, attacking people is a no-no).
- The focus should be on learning and continuous improvement.
- Strive to allow others to offer solutions, rather than you offering them.
A properly conducted AAR can have a powerful influence on the climate of your organization. It is part of the communication process that educates and motivates people on to greatness by sensitizing them to do the right thing. It can prevents future confusion on organizational priorities and philosophies and drive home the point that we learn from our mistakes.
A Strategy for Implementing AARs
Capturing Lessons Learned with an AAR — This method uses a three-prong process:
- Capture the Lessons Learned
- Store it in a social site for easy retrieval
- Provide a microblogging tool to help others to learn about recent lessons learned
Darling, M. J., Flanigan, D. C. (2008). What can leaders do? Learning and Performance Matters, Kumar. P., Ramsey. P. (Eds.). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company
Department of the Army (1993). A Leaders Guide To After Action Review (TC 25-20).
USAID (2006). After Action Review Technical Guidance. PN-ADF-360. Washington, DC: U.S. Agency for International Development
Walden, J. L. (2009). Modeling and Benchmarking Supply Chain Leadership. Boca Raton, FL: Auerbach Publications.
Activity: Questions that Invite Participation
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