After Action Reviews

In a constantly evolving world, creating a culture of continuous learning and performance improvement is vital to team successes (and to the understanding of team failures).  Originally developed by the U.S. Army in the 1970s to help soldiers learn from both their mistakes and their achievements, implement After Action Reviews (AARs) at your company.

To begin, leaders must implement candor with care, defined by Wharton as creating “a climate of transparency, selflessness, and candor where team members can challenge current ways of thinking and performing.”  Knowledge is power and AARs create tangible ways to improve your organization.  Without knowing what went wrong or what went right, how can you expect you, your team, or your company to improve?

An After-Action Review answers these four questions and leads to specific follow-up actions:

  1. What did we expect to happen?
  2. What actually occurred?
  3. What went well and why?
  4. What can we improve upon and how?

Getting Started: First time using AARs?  Generate positivity around this new initiative.

  • Explain the why – discuss the purpose and rules. The emphasis should be on learning, AARs are not meant to generate negative criticism or fault-finding in a team.  The goal should be the quickest path to maximum involvement, openness, and honesty, starting with the leader.
  • Focus on trust – encourage active participation. Encourage discussion surrounding disagreements and stop blaming language and personal attacks immediately.
  • Use a third-party facilitator – focus on the discussion, not the leader. A neutral third party can lead the discussion in a non-judgement way.
  • Start on the same page – have participants agree on the original desired outcome.
  • Encourage individual thinking first, then share. Have all participants write down their ideas first, then share and discuss.  This avoids groupthink and dominant personalities taking over the room. As a rule, leaders speak last to avoid influencing individual team members.
  • Discuss overall performance – keep the spotlight on the team as a whole.
  • Conduct the AAR as soon as possible – the longer the delay, the lesser the impact.
  • Incorporate specific questions – come prepared with thoughtful questions.

Questions for Success

  • What did we anticipate would be the end result of this project?
  • What did we do (how did we execute relative to our strategy)?
  • In your opinion, what is the ideal procedure? What would you have preferred to happen?
  • Why did it happen that way (why was there a difference between strategy and execution)?
  • How could the situation have been prevented?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Action Steps for Ongoing Success and Implementation:

  1. Consistency is key – make it a priority. Schedule AARs regularly to learn from both successes and failures, with team members focused on improving their performance.  The sooner it is completed, the better (never wait more than two weeks).
  2. Use facts, not opinions. Gather the relevant figures relating to the team’s performance prior to the AAR such as project deadlines, product standards, client feedback, etc.
  3. Make participation mandatory. Include all project team members in the discussion and if possible, even customers, partners and suppliers.  Use open-ended and specific questions.
  4. Ongoing ‘Rules of Engagement.’ AARs must be confidential (share learnings, not specific comments), transparent, and focused on improvement and development.
  5. Create an AAR Report to easily summarize and share findings with other teams. Clearly list the wins that should be repeated and the mistakes that should be remedied for future projects.
  6. Share AAR lessons across the organization. Document the team’s responses to specific questions, discussions, and learnings and use the company’s intranet with dedicated blogs/top takeaways from AARs to avoid mistakes and replicate best practices.
  7. Prepare for the next success with a BAR (Before Action Review). Plan time to review the previous lessons learned when creating new action plan or performance standards.