After Action Review (AAR)
A basis for learning-driven improvement and a corner-stone of organizational agility

by Tom Reeder

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Dr. Herb True1

“The After-Action Review (AAR)… was conceived back in 1981 to help Army leaders adapt quickly in dynamic, unpredictable situations they were sure to face2.”  And, I cannot imagine a more important environment for learning than when you and your teammates’ lives are on the line. The Army and the Marines both have extensive investment in training individuals (partially through informal AARs) and the organization as a whole (partially through formal AARs). Although the different branches have some unique nomenclature, for example USMC’s Lessons Learned Report, the objective of learning and improving quickly is consistent throughout.

Most of us only rely on our teammates for our lives metaphorically, but individual and organizational learning can occur the same way- through an After-Action Review (AAR). We think of learning (e.g., what is working/what is not working) as the front-half of the learning-innovation coin, with innovation providing the here-are-the-changes-we-make-now side. And, to paraphrase the title of a Forbes article slightly Agile is the world’s most popular innovation engine3, with business agility as the ability to rapidly respond to change by adapting the organization’s stable configuration4.

Just to be clear, an action can be a project, activity, event or task5- the work we do- and a potential opportunity to learn. Throughout the remainder of this post, we will link the idea of learning through a facilitated technique for event-based analysis: before-, during- and after-action reviews.

Getting started

Both the U.S. Army’s Opposing Force (OPFOR) and Shell Oil were early adapters of After-Action Review (AAR)6. In order to be successful with any project, activity, event or task, we must start with clear direction and leadership support. For example, OPFOR’s four-part direction for each campaign7:

  • The task- What actions to take
  • The purpose- Why the task is important
  • The intent- Explain the sponsor’s thinking
  • The end-state- What the desired results are

A clear directional mantra for the team(s) might rhyme with “In this situation, given this mission, if we take this action, we will accomplish that outcome8.”

The basics of After-Action event analysis

Discussion of an event, focused on performance standards allows participants to learn through self-discovery, reflection, discussion and feedback:

  • What happened
  • Why it happened
  • How-to sustain strengths and improve weakness9

“Good leaders help their subordinates grow by teaching, coaching and counseling10.”
Benefits of conducting After-Action reviews include individual, team and organizational learning along multiple dimensions to11:

  • Think better
  • Build a shared contextual awareness
  • Sustain a competitive advantage
  • Spark creativity
  • Enable decision making
  • Minimize interpretation

 

Expanding the concept of event analysis to Before-Action

Our experience as consultants with post-mortems extends back to our pre-MBA days as engineers. As management consultants, we have mostly relied on kickoff meetings to ensure general communication of the problem and plan, demonstrate leadership commitment, and engage the team. Familiarizing key stakeholders through a Before-Action Review (BAR) is a logical next maturity step in project management, and it prepares the stakeholders and team members for the following After-Action Review discussion(s) with common themes.

Early involvement of the team and other stakeholders increases awareness and provides a basis for innovation during execution to improve performance throughout the project, activity, event or task.

Escalating to During-Action event analysis

Not every action requires interim analysis. But, the now famous 15-minute daily team scrum meetings for tech development projects is a good example where the focus of three questions is on each participant:

  • What did I accomplish since our last scrum meeting?
  • What do I plan to work on by the next daily scrum?
  • What are the obstacles or impediments that are preventing me from making progress?12

In projects and events where interim adjustments can help ensure better and more efficient outcomes, teams can periodically pause to learn, remove barriers and coordinate before reaching key milestones- critical, for example, to scrum’s approach to software development. We have used this concept in our business-driven projects dating back to our Swift-Teamssm approach including a weekly scrum-cycle within three-week “sprints.”

Another expansion of the During-Action Review (DAR) is to periodically include key stakeholders like Product Managers for Scrum Teams or Executive Sponsors for business initiatives. For years, we have advocated and used a weekly Executive Review and Report including:

  • Unresolved (old/open) concerns/issues
  • New concerns/issues
  • Key accomplishments this week
  • Key activity planned for next week
  • Milestones and status
  • Relevant attachments

A working framework for event-based analysis

Looking at the Before-, During-, and After-Action Review concepts together, the most popular technique includes discussions facilitated by prompts or questions. The following provides widely-published prompts for each type of review along four common topic areas (e.g., Intent, Performance, Learnings, and Next Time), and we have included some of our observations as key characteristics for each of the review-types.

 

Guiding Principles for Action Reviews- a starter kit

  • “Begin using it selectively- on projects where the payoff is greatest, and leaders are committed to working through several AAR cycles20
  • Treat every action as an opportunity for learning how to think21
  • Treat every AAR as more than a post-mortem of failure22
  • “Don’t even think about creating an AAR regimen without determining who is likely to learn from it and how they will benefit23
  • “Conditions change. Results shouldn’t24
  • “Everyone can and should participate25
  • “Conduct AARs so… people don’t just make mistakes, but learn from them26
  • Improvement requires innovatively-driven change based on individual feedback, reflection and learning
  • Constantly consider the best way to ensure and embed individual-, team- and organizational-learning

Getting started with Action Reviews can provide a cultural foundation for agile business

After-Action Reviews by any name are a proven learning technique in business and in the military. If you take only a token effort from your post-mortem, or if you do not currently capture learnings from your projects to expand your institutional knowledge, start with After-Action Reviews.

If you have After-Action Reviews built into your culture and standard operating procedures for most projects, events and activities-of-scale, adding a Before-Action Review is a great next step.

After you have begun to appreciate the benefits of learning and innovation of AARs and BARs, and, if you would like to enjoy the widely-published benefits of speed and flexibility of an agile organization, consider taking the step toward a scrum approach to agile by including During-Action Reviews, commonly referred to as the daily standup meeting. Keep in mind, that just like project management, you only need to add enough structure to manage the risk. For example, your scrum meeting frequency can vary, as we have found to be successful with our weekly business initiative SwiftTeamssm team meetings and sponsor reviews.

Independent of how your sequence your approach BARs, DARs and AARs, remember the trailing phrase of Dr. Herb True’s memorable quote: “involve me and I will learn.”

 

End Notes and References

[1] Learning quote is widely misattributed to Ben Franklin. See “Misquotes and memes: Did Ben Franklin really say that?” July 1, 2015, Baylor University, [Internet] [Cited June 29,2018] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150701152634.htm | Special thanks to Dr. Clark Quinn who, during his review of a draft of this post, pointed out the misattribution and pointed me to a more reliable attribution of Dr. Herb True sourced from Barry Popkin (a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Yale Book of Quotations and Dictionary of Modern Proverbs) in Popkin’s post, December 19, 2012, [Internet] [Cited June 29,2018] https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/tell_me_and_
i_forget_teach_me_and_i_may_remember_involve_me_and_i_will_lear/

[2] See Darling, et al, “Learning in the thick of it,” Harvard Business Review (July-August 2005); Also note the Marines Lessons Learned have created an AAR Builder including OILS (observations, insights, lessons, trends and AAR)

[3] See Denning, “Agile: The World’s Most Popular Innovation Engine,” Forbes, July 23, 2015 [Internet] [Cited 6.18.2018] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2015/07/23/the-worlds-most-popular-innovation-engine/

[4] See “Business Agility,” Wikipedia [Internet] [Cited 6.18.2018] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_agility

[5] “An After Action Review (AAR) is a simple process used by a team to capture the lessons learned from past successes and failures, with the goal of improving future performance.” See “After Action Review,” Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, [Internet] [Cited 6.29.2018] http://www.kstoolkit.org/After+Action+Review

[6] See Darling, et al

[7] See Darling, et al

[8] See Darling, et al

[9] See The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual (FM No. 22-100), (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004 edition), p. 6 (1-19)

[10] See The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual (FM No. 22-100), p. 4 (1-59)

[11] From Boss, “Don’t skimp on the after action review,” Forbes, December 1, 2016 [Internet] [Cited June 19, 2018] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffboss/2016/12/01/dont-skimp-on-the-after-action-review-6-reasons-why/#2185f0dbba3d

[12] See treatment of “Daily Scrum” Rubin, Essential Scrum, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2013) 7th printing, October 2015, pp 23-24

[13] See Darling, et al; Idea in practice section

[14] “A pre-mortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than at the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied.” See Klein, “Performing a Project Premortem,” Harvard Business Review (September 2007).

[15] NextForge analysis

[16] Informed by “Daily Scrum” by Rubin pp. 23-24

[17] See Darling, et al

[18] See U.S. Army Training Circular 25-20, Department of the Army (September 1993)

[19] NextForge analysis; Each activity stage has a different and unique time-horizon

[20] See Darling, et al; Idea in practice section

[21] See Darling, et al

[22] See Darling, et al

[23] See Darling, et al; Sidebar “Five ways to put AARs to work at work”

[24] See Darling, et al; discussion of a consulting-firm’s ad featuring Tiger Woods squinting through the rain to complete a golf shot

[25] See “A leaders guide to after-action reviews (TC 25-20).” Also see The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual (FM No. 22-100) 5-62 “When subordinates share in identifying reasons for success and failure, they become owners of a stake in how things get done.”

[26] See The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual (FM No. 22-100) 1-59

 

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admin August 23, 2018 at 9:42 am

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
See our summary overview of this post on LinkedIn…
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