If you’ve just completed a campaign or significant action of some sort – like internal restructuring, changing business processes, or launched a product in a new market – and you’re not setting aside time to examine how that action went, then you’re missing out on a tremendous learning opportunity. Successful business teams know the importance of a thorough after action review.
A process originating from the US Army’s National Training Center, the After Action Review (AAR) process was started as a way to evaluate information learned after a military operation by systemizing the process of generating feedback and recording it for other military personnel. More than simply recording feedback, though, the after action review is also meant to crystallize and test lessons learned on the battlefield. That which is learned is put into action to test its veracity and determine whether it should be codified into military operations and strategy, or discarded entirely. In essence, the military created a methodology for ensuring that learning is taking place.
In the private sector, this process was first adopted and popularized by Shell Oil in 1998, which started using AARs thanks to Gordon Sullivan, a retired general on their board. The practice quickly spread to other major corporations.
The template for performing an after action review involves answering the following four questions:
- What were the intended results?
- What were the actual results?
- What caused our results?
- What will we sustain, improve, and discard – what were our learnings?
While performing the after action review it is important to focus on lessons learned, not on blame, with an eye towards finding problems in the thought process during the action being discussed. Likewise, communication has to be open and free-flowing with no sense of hierarchy. In the US Army, they say to “leave your rank at the door” when performing an AAR. Answers to the questions are typically noted on a flip-board in real-time and then often turned into a report for dissemination to other people within the organization.
Over the years, the process has become watered down at many firms, being somewhat of a rote exercise to generate a report that doesn’t always get acted upon. The military’s success with these exercises has relied on cycling the learnings back into operations to test the hypotheses generated during an after action review. When evaluating complex campaigns or actions we rarely get the answer exactly right the second time around, so the feedback loop needs to happen in an iterative manner. This continued experimentation and subsequent betterment is key to keeping participants engaged because they see the results of their contributions.
After action reviews are a formalized approach to the experiential learning model we employ at all our team building and corporate training events. Getting employees to be observant contributors who can feel the rewards of their participation is key to engagement and development. In addition to exploring AARs with your team, we suggest taking a look at our Problem Solving for Teams workshop which examines the process for finding creative solutions to challenges faced in the workplace.
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