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. The United States Army first utilized after-action reviews on combat missions. Since then, modern companies such as British Petroleum, Motorola, and General Electric have become proponents. AARs are also used to identify gaps in public health emergency preparedness systems. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a search review of the emergency response led to new communication methods 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.

After-action review and lessons learned

The term lessons learned refers to the various experiences project team members have while participating in a project. Lessons are shared in a review session which usually occurs once the project has been completed, with any improvements or best practices incorporated into subsequent projects. 

As a team gathers an after-action review report, it’s critical to draw a set of lessons learned.

In project management, lessons learned comprise both positive and negative outcomes of a project.

In this way, the team can use these lessons to improve productivity on upcoming projects.

And prevent the major pitfalls of upcoming projects with similar features.

After-action review and root cause analysis

In essence, a root cause analysis involves the identification of problem root causes to devise the most effective solutions. Note that the root cause is an underlying factor that sets the problem in motion or causes a particular situation such as non-conformance.

The after-action review process is also critical to understand the root cause of a problem.

In other words, understand the relation between what made the project successful and unsuccessful.

By uncovering the root causes, a team can improve its performance on upcoming projects.

After-action Review vs. Post-mortem

Post-mortem analyses review projects from start to finish to determine process improvements and ensure that inefficiencies are not repeated in the future. In the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), this process is referred to as “lessons learned”.

Post-mortem analyses often focus on the negative side, on things that did not work, both tools though are extremely useful in aligning teams around how to make progress over projects’ failures.

After-action Review vs. Retrospective Analysis

Retrospective analyses are held after a project to determine what worked well and what did not. They are also conducted at the end of an iteration in Agile project management. Agile practitioners call these meetings retrospectives or retros. They are an effective way to check the pulse of a project team, reflect on the work performed to date, and reach a consensus on how to tackle the next sprint cycle.

Both retrospective analysis and after-action review focus on understanding projects’ mistakes after they have been closed.

Thus, both tools are useful in having teams improve performance after the end of the project.

Whereas the after-action review focuses on understanding why the outcome was not as expected. The retrospective analysis is more about understanding how to improve the process as new projects roll in.

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 an important business insight into what worked and could be improved in the 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 Analysis Frameworks

Cynefin Framework

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.

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

Personal SWOT Analysis

The SWOT analysis is commonly used as a strategic planning tool in business. However, it is also well suited for personal use in addressing a specific goal or problem. A personal SWOT analysis helps individuals identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Pareto Analysis

The Pareto Analysis is a statistical analysis used in business decision making that identifies a certain number of input factors that have the greatest impact on income. It is based on the similarly named Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of the effect of something can be attributed to just 20% of the drivers.

Failure Mode And Effects Analysis

A failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) is a structured approach to identifying design failures in a product or process. Developed in the 1950s, the failure mode and effects analysis is one the earliest methodologies of its kind. It enables organizations to anticipate a range of potential failures during the design stage.

Blindspot Analysis

A Blindspot Analysis is a means of unearthing incorrect or outdated assumptions that can harm decision making in an organization. The term “blindspot analysis” was first coined by American economist Michael Porter. Porter argued that in business, outdated ideas or strategies had the potential to stifle modern ideas and prevent them from succeeding. Furthermore, decisions a business thought were made with care caused projects to fail because major factors had not been duly considered.

Comparable Company Analysis

A comparable company analysis is a process that enables the identification of similar organizations to be used as a comparison to understand the business and financial performance of the target company. To find comparables you can look at two key profiles: the business and financial profile. From the comparable company analysis it is possible to understand the competitive landscape of the target organization.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

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.

Agile Business Analysis

Agile Business Analysis (AgileBA) is certification in the form of guidance and training for business analysts seeking to work in agile environments. To support this shift, AgileBA also helps the business analyst relate Agile projects to a wider organizational mission or strategy. To ensure that analysts have the necessary skills and expertise, AgileBA certification was developed.

SOAR Analysis

A SOAR analysis is a technique that helps businesses at a strategic planning level to: Focus on what they are doing right. Determine which skills could be enhanced. Understand the desires and motivations of their stakeholders.

STEEPLE Analysis

The STEEPLE analysis is a variation of the STEEP analysis. Where the step analysis comprises socio-cultural, technological, economic, environmental/ecological, and political factors as the base of the analysis. The STEEPLE analysis adds other two factors such as Legal and Ethical.

Pestel Analysis

The PESTEL analysis is a framework that can help marketers assess whether macro-economic factors are affecting an organization. This is a critical step that helps organizations identify potential threats and weaknesses that can be used in other frameworks such as SWOT or to gain a broader and better understanding of the overall marketing environment.

DESTEP Analysis

A DESTEP analysis is a framework used by businesses to understand their external environment and the issues which may impact them. The DESTEP analysis is an extension of the popular PEST analysis created by Harvard Business School professor Francis J. Aguilar. The DESTEP analysis groups external factors into six categories: demographic, economic, socio-cultural, technological, ecological, and political.

Paired Comparison Analysis

A paired comparison analysis is used to rate or rank options where evaluation criteria are subjective by nature. The analysis is particularly useful when there is a lack of clear priorities or objective data to base decisions on. A paired comparison analysis evaluates a range of options by comparing them against each other.

Related Strategy Concepts: Go-To-Market StrategyMarketing StrategyBusiness ModelsTech Business ModelsJobs-To-Be DoneDesign ThinkingLean Startup CanvasValue ChainValue Proposition CanvasBalanced ScorecardBusiness Model CanvasSWOT AnalysisGrowth HackingBundlingUnbundlingBootstrappingVenture CapitalPorter’s Five ForcesPorter’s Generic StrategiesPorter’s Five ForcesPESTEL AnalysisSWOTPorter’s Diamond ModelAnsoffTechnology Adoption CurveTOWSSOARBalanced ScorecardOKRAgile MethodologyValue PropositionVTDF FrameworkBCG MatrixGE McKinsey MatrixKotter’s 8-Step Change Model.

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