Modern business is complex and demanding. To succeed people must collaborate effectively to meet individual and team objectives. They need to take every opportunity to learn from their daily experiences of working with each other to improve performance. In order to do this, they must take the time to reflect and understand what happened and did not happen during the course of a particular business activity, why this was the case and to learn from it.
During the daily course of business life, however, there are an endless series of events, most small, some large: projects, tasks, presentations, sales calls, scheduled meetings, impromptu meetings, phone calls, budget reviews, appraisals you name it. Depending on your role and position in the hierarchy you will experience more or less of these daily events. All come and go in the course of the day, others in the course of a larger project or in the course of a year. The pace and unending flow of these events, the continuous stream of interruptions, meetings called at the last minute, the pressure to meet deadlines, emergencies, and frequent change means that there is little time to reflect on events - they happen, they are dealt with, they are gone, they are forgotten.
This happens at the personal, team and organisational level. How many times, in your experience, at the end of a project is there no time left for a wrap-up review - there is pressure to start the next project and before you know it the team has broken up and gone its separate ways and it is impossible to get everyone together to hold a meeting and by now there is little motivation. This happens with major projects and is probably commented on - but all those smaller projects and events - they just pass in the night.
What's more, when that new project starts up in such a hurry, is there time to review the learnings of the past, to talk with project managers and team members of previous similar projects to glean a little of their wisdom - maybe avoid a few of the obvious pit-falls - not likely. No time!
So guess what? Little is learnt from the experiences of past events and actions, mistakes are repeated, blame runs rife.
But it should not and need not be like this. By taking a little time out, by investing a little time, it is possible to review events and actions on a regular daily basis and continually learn from them. This is the rationale behind the discipline of After Action Reviews.
An After-action review (AAR) is a discussion of a business event or action that enables the individuals involved to better learn from their daily business experiences. AARs ask the questions: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? [What, How, Why] What was learnt?
Fundamental to the success of an AAR is that the spirit should be one of openness and learning. AARs are not about problem fixing or allocating blame.
What makes AARs so powerful are that they can be applied across a wide spectrum of events from two individuals conducting a five minute AAR at the end of a short meeting to a day-long AAR held by a project team at the end of a large project. Lessons-learnt are not only tacitly absorbed on the spot by the individuals involved but can be explicitly documented and shared with a wider audience.
After-action reviews were originally developed and are extensively used by the US Army.
After Action Reviews
An AAR is an incredibly simple but powerful tool that allows individuals and teams to continuously learn from their everyday experiences. In essence, at the end of every event, a number of questions are asked:
- What were the desired outcomes?
- What were the actual outcomes?
- Why were the outcomes different to those planned?
- What was learnt?
An event can be as small as "a ten minute phone call" or as large a "major five year project to build an oil-refinery." But what ever its nature, it typically has a purpose, a start and a finish and measurable objectives.
An AAR is held at the end of an event. The effort put into an AAR should be commensurate with the size and scope of the event under review. An AAR can be held by an individual on his or her own after a small every day task like a phone call to a client. It can be conducted by two or three people at the end of a meeting. It can be held by a small project team say at the end of a conference or by a major project team at the end of a multi-year global project. And of course anywhere on the spectrum in between.
Examples of Events
Here are a few examples of events:
- A telephone call to a client
- An internal meeting
- A sales call to a client
- A project
Formal, Informal and Personal AARs
Although the fundamentals are identical there are essentially three types of AAR - depending on the event an AAR can be Formal, Informal or Personal. All AARs follow the same general format and involve the exchange of observations and ideas. How an AAR is conducted however, depends on its type.
A formal AAR is resource intensive and involves planning and preparation of supporting materials. An example of a formal AAR would be an one conducted at the end of a major project. Formal reviews:
- Have external observers or other means of data gathering
Take time to prepare
Take time to conduct
Are scheduled beforehand
Are conducted where best supported
Informal AARs require much less preparation and planning and can often be help on the spur of the moment. An informal AAR would be conducted, for example, after a much smaller event such as presentation. Informal reviews:
- Are conducted as appropriate by anyone
Take no little or no time to prepare
Need not take long to conduct
Are conducted as needed
Are held anywhere as appropriate
Personal AARs are held by an individual. They are usually quick informal affairs for example reviewing the outcome of a telephone call to a customer. Or they can take a little longer and be more formal, for example, reviewing your part at the end of a major project. More formal Personal AARs are ideally held with a coach or mentor.
AAR Key Points
Should be conducted immediately
AARs should be conducted immediately after or even during an event. The reasons are simple - memories are fresh, participants are available and where appropriate, learning can be applied immediately.
Should focus on the intended objectives
Should focus on individual, leader and team performance
AARs should be facilitated
Ideally an AAR should be facilitated. Certainly a formal AAR should be facilitated but as hoc informal AARs and personal AARs need not be so.
Events should be observed
Where possible and appropriate ...
Everyone should be involved
Everyone involved should attend. No observers. No representatives.
The climate should be open
Climate should be open, blameless, focused on problem fixing. Should not form part of personal a performance evaluation. Free from fear.
Should be linked to subsequent training
Learnings should be recorded
Lessons should be recorded. Process of writing itself is useful - helps reflection. Helps commitment to corrective action. Allows trends to be spotted.
A Brief History of After Action Reviews
The "After Action Review" was first developed as a learning methodology in the 1970's by the US Army. Its purpose was to create a structured means to facilitate day to day learning from combat training exercises. The reasons for success or failure in combat training exercises are often not clear. AARs were designed to tease out the learnings from such exercises.
The AAR methodology has been extremely successful in the US Army and today is so firmly embedded in its culture that an AAR takes place after every training event.
AARs were first adopted in business only a few years ago in the late 90's. One of the first articles on the subject was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1993 by Harvard Business School professor David Garvin entitled "Building a Learning Organisation". Organisations that have adopted AARs as part of their culture include BP-Amoco, Steelcase, Motorola and General Electric.