An after-action review (AAR) is a structured process of reflecting on the work of a group by identifying strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. After action reviews were first utilized by the United States Army on combat missions. Since then, modern companies such as British Petroleum, Motorola, and General Electric have all become proponents. AARs are also used to identify gaps in public health emergency preparedness systems. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a searching review of the emergency response led to new methods of communicating during natural disasters.
Understanding an after-action review
The process of running through an after action review centers on four questions:
- What did we expect to happen?
- What actually happened?
- What went well, and why?
- What can we improve on, and how?
These questions provide knowledge to the business, and knowledge is power. Put differently, improvement cannot be realized without an understanding of what went wrong.
The five steps of an after action review
Conducting a successful after action review is a matter of following five steps.
Step 1 – Make it a priority
Too many organizations let the review process fall by the wayside. Ideally, a review should be a non-negotiable component of every project.
Prioritizing the completion of an AAR means the project is still fresh in the mind of the project team. No more than 2 weeks should elapse after project completion before an AAR is undertaken.
Step 2 – Involve everyone
The facilitator should gather the project team together and involve them in the entire review process. This ensures that each individual perspective is heard and that no weakness or struggle goes undetected.
Importantly, the facilitator should create an atmosphere of shared improvement. They should stress that the AAR is not a personal performance review.
Step 3 – Conducting the review
The facilitator should then guide the group through the four questions mentioned earlier.
- What was expected to happen? Define the purpose, objectives, and initial timeline. Who was the audience? What were the intended outcomes? What barriers were expected to occur?
- What actually happened? The focus should be a non-judgmental account of what transpired. Involve each member of the project team and resolve inconsistencies in the story if required.
- What went well, and why? The goal here is to identify best practices that can be built into systems for future use. If time is limited, the facilitator can ask every team member what they believed had the greatest direct impact on success.
- What can be improved, and how? How could the team have performed better given the tools at their disposal? How can stumbling blocks or pitfalls be avoided in the future? How might processes change with new insights? What advice would the project team give to a future team?
In answering these questions, some basic ground rules must also be established:
- Participants should share honest observations without resorting to blame or praise.
- Every individual has something important to contribute. No one person possesses all the answers.
- Every idea has equal value. There are no right or wrong ideas.
- Consensus is preferable, but clarification is important in cases where consensus is not possible.
- No record of the AAR will be distributed without the express permission of all participants. The same applies to direct quote usage.
Step 4 – Crafting the report
The final report does not need to be a masterpiece, but it should summarize the points made in the meeting in a shareable format. Include basic information such as the name of the project and the names of those in attendance.
It’s also important to document the best practices that should be repeated and the weaknesses that should be remedied. The document can then be shared with the project sponsor or other relevant leaders.
Step 5 – Implement the changes
Change implementation will vary depending on the industry. But in any case, it should be implemented as quickly as possible.
- An after action review is a structured project review that assesses strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement.
- An after action review is centered around four key questions that give a business important insights into what worked and what could be improved in future.
- An after action review can be completed in five steps. A facilitator is important in maintaining a constructive, collaborative, and open discussion that enhances strengths and remedies weaknesses.
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