After Action Reviews (sometimes referred to as AARs) have their origins in the United States military. Tools and techniques that improve team performance often have a military provenance. An advantage of techniques with military origins is that they’ve been tried and tested when the stakes were very high. The idea is that after the ‘action’, there is an immediate review to examine:
- What results were sought?
- What results were achieved?
- What worked well and why?
- What didn’t work well and why?
- What will we continue doing?
- What will we improve and change?
Military team members use AARs both immediately after an action and at the completion of the overall initiative. That could be just after they’ve secured a position during an offensive, and it will also be at the end of the campaign – and several other points in between. Everyone gets to speak and contribute. Lessons are learned and applied. The process is rigorous, yet brief.
So far, so good. Can AARs support team performance in corporate workplaces? I believe the answer’s ‘Yes’ – with a few caveats.
Caveat: there’s probably less at stake
As well as having the advantage of being tested in extreme situations, I think a disadvantage military-derived techniques can suffer when translated to the corporate workplace is that the stakes just aren’t as high. (However, it’s notable that parts of the UK’s National Health Service have adopted AARs for critical incidents.) If you want to try AARs with your team, avoid acting the five-star general and simply use the techniques and key questions to facilitate team learning. https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/qsir-after-action-review.pdf
Caveat: ‘immediate’ means just that
One of the reasons AARs have proved so successful in the military setting is that their immediacy allows lessons learned to be applied right away. In constantly changing and unpredictable situations the team’s objectives may shift, and tactics will have to change accordingly.
5 Key points for using After Action Reviews
1. State the objective
If you’re going to use AARs throughout your project, ensure that all team members can clearly state the objective at the outset. What needs to be achieved? What specific results are required? What’s more, team members need to know why the objective matters.
2. Identify the challenges
Based on what’s been learned from previous projects, what challenges does the team anticipate? What lessons were learned previously that can be applied now?
3. Don’t wait for the formal ‘wrap-up’
AARs are used by military teams when a phase or stage of the strategy is complete, as well as at the end of the whole campaign. So you can use them immediately after a meeting, say with key stakeholders, investors or clients, and as part of your on-going work on a project. This way, lessons learned through AARs with new stakeholders or clients can be applied as the project progresses – rather than waiting for the formal wrap-up at the project’s end.
4. Ditch the hierarchy
This might seem counter-intuitive, as we may perceive the military to be hugely hierarchical. Certainly there are chains of command, but when it comes to AARs, everyone gets to contribute regardless of rank: ‘leave your stripes at the door’. Consider ways you can get all the ‘ranks’ in your teams to contribute by using different facilitation techniques. Here are two ideas:
- Use a Post-It flurry where everyone writes suggestions on sticky notes, puts them on a wall and groups them for everyone to discuss;
- Simply take it in turns for each team member to have ‘the mic’ or their say (time limits are good; try 60 seconds). Ground-rules such as ‘she/he who holds the mic is listened to with respect by everyone else’ and ‘at 60 seconds the mic moves on’ can help.
5. Share the learning
How can colleagues in other teams benefit from the learning gathered in your team’s AARs? Think of ways you can share the learning, for example via a forum post, a brief talk or lunch and learn, a video diary, a checklist. Aim to create assets rather than dry reports.
‘How to work well in a team’ is a popular topic on Zoomly’s menu of bite-sized workshops. Head to the ‘contact’ page if you want to find out more.
You may also find this post useful: ‘Team effectiveness tip: checklists’
Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’
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