After Action Review

By: Ronette Kersting

After-Action Reviews are one of the simplest yet most powerful tools. Called “one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised,” the after-action review (AAR) was developed by the United States Army in the 1970s to help its soldiers learn from both their mistakes and achievements. Since then, many companies and organizations have used the AAR to foster project development, team performance, and team accountability. AARs are also used to identify gaps in public health emergency preparedness systems. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an AAR of the emergency response led to new methods of communicating during natural disasters.

The tool helps create a culture of continuous improvement and adaptive learning by systematically reviewing team successes and failures. It helps focus on WHY things happened. It encourages critical thinking and discussion of both the pros and cons of projects, ideally creating best practices for the future.

What is the process?

The process itself is an active discussion centered around three key questions:

  1. What went well & why?
  2. What can be improved & how?
  3. What actions to take going forward?

The AAR helps focus on team performance but also is a catalyst for cultural change. To be effective, leaders must create a climate of transparency, selflessness, and candor such that all team members can speak honestly and openly. Participation is expected by everyone on the team. The expectation is to identify ways to sustain what went well and develop recommendations for improvement. AAR’s can be used to assess both successful and unsuccessful events. They will strengthen teams and improve performance. When shared, the key learnings and experiences can also benefit the entire organization.

How to implement?

The following steps will help you get started.

  1. Schedule after-action reviews immediately following event/project completion.
  2. Schedule for both successes and failures.
  3. Make participation mandatory and involve all team members in the discussion.
  4. Encourage honest participation and mutual trust.
  5. Share learning across the organization.

Organizations are a complex ecosystem of leadership, communication, performance coaching, strategic planning, conflict management, etc. A good organization needs many elements working together to be effective. AAR is one tool in the toolbox. It helps foster a culture of continuous learning and encourages critical thinking and discussion for continuous improvement.

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