Conducting an After Action Review
This is the After Action Review (AAR) format originally developed by the U.S. Army, based on original materials like TC 25-20 A Leader’s Guide to After-Action Reviews.pdf and Foundations of the After Action Review Process.
The AAR is designed to identify what the intended and actual outcomes were, what went well and should be maintained going forward, as well as what didn’t go well and should be improved for next time. It has been adopted worldwide by other military organizations, government agencies, and private industry.
Table of Contents
Step 1: Planning
Broadly speaking, there are two types of AAR: formal and informal ones.
- An informal AAR requires minimal planning or preparation and may even be scheduled ad-hoc when a situation presents itself.
- Formal AARs are typically planned ahead of time and prepared well before the session starts. Special consideration should be made as to who should attend, who will be facilitating and what should be covered.
For formal AARs, facts and supporting materials should be gathered and prepared up-front in order to support and guide the conversation, using objective criteria.
Either way, when planning an AAR, the following recommendations should be taken into account:
- To minimize memory losses, AARs must be conducted as soon after the event as practical—preferably, the very same day.
- AARs should include, whenever possible, all key participants. The more diverse viewpoints you get, the more likely you are to establish a clear picture of what truly happened.
- For best results, have an outside facilitator. They will be less likely to get caught up in the content of the conversation and can encourage everyone to participate in the conversation.
- Assign times to the sections of the AAR in advance, assign a timekeeper and/or set an audible timer as a reminder. It is easy for groups to get lost in conversation and not have time to cover all sections of the review.
Step 2: Conducting the AAR
This AAR format is conceptually simple and straightforward, comprising only 4 main sections and questions to ask:
- What did we set out to do? (or: What was planned?)
- What actually happened?
- Why did it happen?
- What are we going to do next time?
According to Army guidelines, roughly 25% of the time should be devoted to the first two questions, 25% to the third, and 50% to the last question.
Once the facts are established, diagnosis can begin. Outside the Army, many groups start their reviews at this stage, assuming that prior steps can be omitted without problems. But agreement on both the standards to be met (question one) as well as actual performance (question two) is essential to avoiding endless debates. The Army’s insistence that the first 25 percent of every AAR be devoted to these topics is a critical insight.
Establish ground rules
At the start of the AAR itself, it’s recommended to set out some rules of conduct to help create a psychologically safe environment. As an example:
- Active participation is expected. Everyone should contribute in order to get diverse points of view.
- Placing blame or finding fault will not be tolerated. The goal of the AAR is to learn and identify what may be improved. It’s about building up rather than tearing down.
- Focus on the process rather than the person.
- Be open to each other’s views and perspectives. Everyone’s views have equal value.
- Criticism is unavoidable. Try to be graceful and admit to your own mistakes.
- Mistakes admitted to in the AAR may not be held against anyone later on. Reprisals—either during or after the fact—are not allowed.
- Seek consensus where possible, clarification where not.
Depending on the culture of transparency and blame in the organization around the team, the following should also be considered:
- No record of the discussion will be distributed without the agreement of all participants.
- Individuals will not be named or identified.
- Quotes will not be attributed to individuals without permission.
Conduct the AAR
Once the purpose and the ground rules of the AAR are clear, it’s time to go over events and answer the four questions.
For smaller projects/initiatives, you typically answer these just once for the event as a whole. For larger projects containing multiple milestones or spanning longer periods of time, you may get better results by breaking it down into smaller parts, each time addressing the 4 questions in isolation.
Step 3: Wrap-up
During wrap-ups, if this hadn’t already been done during the previous step, the entire group generates two lists: one of activities to be sustained and another of activities to be improved.
To close the AAR session, summarize key points identified during the discussion and agree on the action points you’ll commit to as a group.
The session should end on a positive note, linking observations to recommendations for future improvements.
Step 4: Applying the lessons learned
The greatest benefit of an AAR comes from applying the lessons learned to future work and teams. It’s important that the action points from the previous step are followed up on and implemented in practice. It is therefore best to rely on small, continuous improvements rather than big, costly efforts that are difficult to implement and likely to stall.
Particular attention should be paid to the following:
- Does the AAR show that current Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) require revision?
- Are all of the elements that are going well part of established SOPs already?
The outcome of an AAR should not be to create a long, fancy report, but it is recommended that the information be captured for later reference. AARs should also primarily be a learning tool for the group itself and don’t need to be designed for sharing with other groups, but where these lessons can help others, it is recommended to distribute this knowledge more broadly.