- Unfortunately, many organizations hold an after action review after the end of a failed project, only to use it as a tool to assign blame.
- Equally ineffective is when companies request after action reports, only to let these documents end up in a dusty binder on a shelf.
Unless project performance feedback is reviewed openly, most of the valuable input is lost. Here’s the contrast between the two styles:
Photo courtesy U.S. Army
After Action Report — A Static, Top Down Process
For one company I worked with, the practice was to request after action reports from their staff after the event, and then project managers would submit a consolidated report to senior management.
Unfortunately, much of the performance feedback became static. For the most part, this input went into a corporate binder, only to collect dust. Worse, without open discussion, the most valuable comments were not acknowledged publicly.
Project team members were never sure whether their suggestion was deemed valuable enough to sustain for future events. Worse, they left believing nothing would change moving forward.
After Action Review — A Dynamic, 360-degree Event
The Army began using the After Action Review (AAR) process in 1981, so I participated in an AAR at the end of every major operation throughout my 20-year career. Whether a helicopter mission or a cadet training exercise, we conducted AARs at the end of every significant event.
In ROTC, we introduced cadets to the AAR process at our Leadership Reaction Course at the beginning of each school year. We consistently conducted AARs, or post-mortems, when we finished an event. As a result, everyone expected a review, so that we would learn from our mistakes and find ways to apply lessons learned during the next exercise.
Participants received immediate and timely feedback within an open forum. Everyone understood what corrections were needed, and there was little doubt about how to proceed moving forward.
NOTE: A key element to our AARs were the Rules of Engagement (ROE), providing a fair and open environment in which to learn other perspectives.
Check out the video on Vantage Points, how different team members will have different perspectives.
In Army Aviation, we called the After Action Review our “hot wash.” Whether Army Aviators or cadets in training, the AAR process was not only an important part of identifying what actions to sustain or improve upon, it was an integral part of our team building and leadership development programs.
Check out this HBR article: Learning in the Thick of It, addressing the Army’s well-regarded AAR process
Leadership Culture Dictates Level of Communication
When applied correctly, the after action review is a great tool for developing deeper connections within your organization and continually improving performance.
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