The After-Action Review is A Simple But Powerful Tool For Teams
Crossing the finish line after working on a project for weeks or months feels good – and you’re ready to move on and close that cycle. But what you do after the project is over can be as important as what you do before and throughout, thanks to a tool called the after-action review (or AAR).
What is an after-action review?
After-action reviews are team meetings where you debrief and capture learnings once a project or significant event wraps up. The idea is to reflect and discuss what happened, why things happened the way they did – both in terms of wins and losses – and what can be done to improve processes moving forward.
Not all after-action reviews are created equal though. If you go through the motions for the sake of saying you did it, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to truly learn. It’s also important to note that AARs are not about pointing fingers when discussing what went wrong – they are meant to be safe and transparent spaces where everyone chimes in to unpack what took place.
Why after-action reviews matter
“AARs should be seen as a learning opportunity and a chance to reflect and even celebrate. I’ve seen some leaders view them as ‘check the box’ activities, but they are so much more than that – and never a blame game,” according to Catherine Rymsha, a professor in the Business department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
If you want to conduct an after-action review and do it right, you need to make sure someone takes notes so that you can reference them in the future. Let’s say your launch nearly failed because of a last-minute tech issue. You deconstruct the tech issue and determine that what went wrong could have been avoided with a few tweaks in workflow and a contingency plan. This is information you’re going to want to document while making sure relevant stakeholders have access to it when they plan similar launches in the future.
“Where leaders also get these wrong is holding the AAR but then never referencing them again to see where improvements can be made. That’s the key to making the learning actionable. Another key point is making sure notes are taken for each part, and that everyone contributes to the conversation to drive accountability and ownership in moving forward,” adds Rymsha.
While after-action reviews offer an occasion to learn from your mistakes, they’re also great for building on strengths. “At our agency, we use after-action reviews to reveal strengths. We can leverage those strengths to provide better services in the future. The insight leads to better, more informed decision-making. Learning from the past leads to a better future,” says Chintan Shah, President of KNB Communications, a healthcare-focused medical communications agency.
The dos and don’ts of holding an after-action review
If you’re ready to start embracing AARs with your team, Shah shared some handy after-action dos and don’ts below:
- “Encourage everyone present to speak. Different perspectives are so important to the process,” says Shah.
- Have a facilitator. “As a leader, I facilitate discussion and keep us on track, but I do not dominate the conversation,” he adds.
- Keep the four main questions in mind. These are the questions you are seeking to answer during your after-action review:
- What was supposed to happen?
- What happened?
- What went wrong and why?
- What went right and why?
- Assign a note-taker and make sure you document the conversation in real time.
- “Don’t be too formal. I have found it is best not to treat after-action reviews with too much formality. This can intimidate some people from speaking freely,” says Shah.
- Don’t single out people during the ‘what went wrong’ discussion. Shah recommends using terms like “we” to show you’re approaching the issue as a group, not looking to scapegoat anyone.
- Don’t rush. After-action meetings are meant to be on the longer side since you’ll want to seek input from everyone involved. “Dedicate enough time so that people feel like their contributions are valued,” adds Shah.
- Don’t go too long in between reviews. “Consistency normalizes the process with the team.”
Follow these key principles and you’ll be ready to have impactful after-action review meetings with your team on a regular basis.