You can keep learning lessons the hard way or you can be part of a business that learns from them, acts on them and can adapt more quickly and effectively than its rivals can. It is less likely to repeat the kinds of errors previously encountered.
An after action review (AAR), as the name may suggest, takes place after the fact. It is used to look at specific questions with the team involved and a wider team.
Those questions would include:
1. What were the intended results vs. the actual results?
2. What decisions/actions were taken?
3. What better decisions/actions could have been taken?
4. Might there have been different results?
5. What should we keep doing? (because it worked)
6. Who will do what to make sure this happens?
First used by the US army on combat missions, the AAR is a structured approach for reflecting on the work of a group and identifying strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement. It is now used by many organisations, both large and small.
An AAR usually takes the form of a facilitated discussion lasting around one hour. It should be noted that it’s not just for use when things don’t go well, it should also be used after successes to see how further improvements could be made.
Having stated that the AAR takes place after the fact, it could be argued that it would make more sense to carry out multiple AARs during a project to assess its progress against targets.
For the AAR process to be successful, the teams needs to have an open and honest discussion about the work under review and the lessons learnt.
Key steps of an effective AAR1:
• Discuss the purpose and rules – It is about learning from experiences, so make this clear right from the start to achieve maximum involvement, openness, and honesty.
• Encourage active participation – When setting the rules, talk about trust. Emphasise that it is OK to disagree and that blame is not part of the discussion. Personal attacks must be stopped immediately.
This is an exercise in good communication, not just feedback and continuous learning. The better the team members communicate with one another and work out differences, the stronger they will be in the future – as both individuals and team players.
• Talk about TEAM performance. The AAR is not about individual performance. Look at how the team performed, and don’t assign blame.
• Use a facilitator. A neutral party helps focus the discussion. This person asks questions and can often lead the discussion in such a way that it remains non-judgmental.
• Conduct the AAR as soon as possible. For feedback to be effective, it should be timely. By doing an AAR quickly, you will get a more accurate description of what happened.
• Focus the discussion with skilful questioning. Direct participants to think about specific issues or areas: “How well did you cooperate?”; “How could communication have been better?”; “What planning activities were most effective?”
• Record the recommendations. Write down the specific recommendations made by the team.
• Provide follow-up and training. If no-one follows up on the recommendations, then time spent on the process is wasted. Create a system to ensure that the ideas gathered in the AAR are incorporated into everyday activities, actions and future training activities.
In summary, an AAR is a great way to get the whole team involved and talking about successes and failures at a team level and agreeing how lessons learnt are utilised in future. It should enable agreement on change and who will be responsible for making it happen.
The NHS and the World Health Organisation (WHO) both use the AAR process. A quick video from the WHO can be viewed here.