01 October 2021

Conducting an After-Action Review

 "A fool despises counsel but a wise man takes it to heart."


During a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting in Washington, DC, on 28 September 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was asked if the Pentagon would review the planning and implementation of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan on 30 August 2021.  

Secretary Austin replied that there would indeed be an 'AAR' or After Action Review of that operation. "Soup to nuts," he later added.

What's an After-Action Review?

An AAR is a formal and informal assessment conducted during or after a project that allows employees and leaders to discover (learn) what happened and why. (Standard definition)

Here are actions that might justify a scaled-to-fit AAR:*

-A telephone call with a client.

-An internal meeting.

-A sales call to a client.

-Introduction of a new product line.

-Training programs.

-A change in hiring procedures.

-The launch of a corporate-wide initiative.

-Assessing one's career.

This approach focuses on the tasks and goals to discover the "why" of outcomes. Think of an AAR as a professional discussion with emotion--to the extent possible--kept outside the room.  

(C) University of Cambridge

There are four basic questions to ask--

1. What was supposed to happen?

2. What actually happened?

3. Why was there a difference?

4. What can we learn from this?

What an AAR is not

To know what something is, it's helpful to know what it's not.  

An After Action Review is not ...

o A lecture

o A discussion of minor events

o A gripe session

o Intend to embarrass anyone

o To judge success or failure

Are AARs for everyone?

Reading about this topic over the years, I've often wondered why more organizations don't take advantage of this tool. Businesses, nonprofits, and higher education should consider using this process. 

However, not without caution.

Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT and author of the best-selling book, "The Fifth Discipline," has this to say about AARs:

"The Army's After Action Review is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods. Yet, almost every corporate effort to graft this truly innovative practice into their culture has failed because, again and again, people reduce the living practice of AARs to a sterile technique."

What professor Senge observes about AARs, that they often absent fertility, could be said about other tools businesses embrace, such as best practices, change management, SWOT analysis, mind mapping, brainstorming, and organizational restructuring.

Why things happen

The most important discovery is why things happened the way they did. And an AAR has the potential for real-time learning--not just after the fact. 

(C) Real KM

An insightful understanding of an AAR comes from an article, "Learning in the Thick of It," published in the July-August 2005 issue of Harvard Business Review. 

Here's what the authors say about making real-time reviews pay off:

o It's not just the learning but how the knowledge is used. 

o The goal is to identify practices to spread and mistakes not to repeat.

o Education is not just about what to do but how to think.

o To be valid, AAR findings must find their way post-haste into the execution of strategy.

Getting started

Three things to keep in mind:

1. For large-scale assessments, an experienced facilitator to run a formal process is always a plus. On the other hand, smaller-scale, informal reviews are more conversational and don't require a trained moderator. Just someone with good communication skills.

2. Come back to the original tasks and goals of the event--and begin asking the basic set of questions suggested above.

3. The more engaged employees, the more recall and lessons learned.


* Ideas drawn from the book, "Conversational Leadership." 


© Bredholt & Co.