What is An After-Action Review? After Action Review In A Nutshell

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:

  1. What did we expect to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What went well, and why?
  4. 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. 

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Key takeaways:

  • 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.

Main Free Guides:

Connected Business Frameworks

Simon’s satisficing strategy is a decision-making technique where the individual considers various solutions until they find an acceptable option. Satisficing is a portmanteau combining sufficing and satisfying and was created by psychologist Herbert A. Simon. He argued that many individuals make decisions with a satisfactory (and not optimal) solution. Satisfactory decisions are preferred because they achieve an acceptable result and avoid the resource-intensive search for something more optimal.
A cost-benefit analysis is a process a business can use to analyze decisions according to the costs associated with making that decision. For a cost analysis to be effective it’s important to articulate the project in the simplest terms possible, identify the costs, determine the benefits of project implementation, assess the alternatives.
In general, terms, go/no-go decision making is a process of passing or failing a proposition. Each proposition is assessed according to criteria that determine whether a project advances to the next stage. The outcome of the go/no-go decision making is to assess whether to go or not to go with a project, or perhaps proceed with caveats.
Social psychologist Kurt Lewin developed the force-field analysis in the 1940s. The force-field analysis is a decision-making tool used to quantify factors that support or oppose a change initiative. Lewin argued that businesses contain dynamic and interactive forces that work together in opposite directions. To institute successful change, the forces driving the change must be stronger than the forces hindering the change.
A decision matrix is a decision-making tool that evaluates and prioritizes a list of options. Decision matrices are useful when: A list of options must be trimmed to a single choice. A decision must be made based on several criteria. A list of criteria has been made manageable through the process of elimination.
The Cynefin Framework gives context to decision making and problem-solving by providing context and guiding an appropriate response. The five domains of the Cynefin Framework comprise obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic domains and disorder if a domain has not been determined at all.
Strategic analysis is a process to understand the organization’s environment and competitive landscape to formulate informed business decisions, to plan for the organizational structure and long-term direction. Strategic planning is also useful to experiment with business model design and assess the fit with the long-term vision of the business.
The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.
The Kepner-Tregoe matrix was created by management consultants Charles H. Kepner and Benjamin B. Tregoe in the 1960s, developed to help businesses navigate the decisions they make daily, the Kepner-Tregoe matrix is a root cause analysis used in organizational decision making.
As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.
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