Managerial Guide to After Action Review (AAR)

Managerial Guide to After Action Review (AAR)

Business mistakes are costly – most leaders know that. But few take proactive steps to investigate the root cause and establish corrective measures while the project is still on track. Indeed, most investigations are often done post mortem – when the deed is done, and nothing can be changed per se.

But that’s not the only way of how a manager can evaluate the success of their endeavors. In fact, the most effective companies don’t wait until the wrap up to start learning about possible mishaps. Instead, they practice continuous evaluation throughout the project lifecycle. In a nutshell, that’s what is AAR (After Action Review) entails.

What is an After Action Report?

At its simplest, an after-action report is a detailed description of an action or event that has occurred with an analysis of what went right, what went wrong and then looking at how that action can be improved for the future. This after-action review is then reduced to writing, in an after-action report, so that it is available for future reference.

The AAR process was first designed by the U.S. military, in its training exercises, simulating war zone situations and events. After each exercise, there was a review to assess successes, failures, and flaws in both strategies and implementations. Afterwards, the team compiled a formal military after action report that concluded and recorded all the findings for future reference.

In the late 90s, the AAR practice made its way to the industry.  Shell Oil Company was among the first to add this model to their project management toolkit. Before this, the common practice at Shell and, indeed, still in use by many organizations, was a post-mortem analysis.

Project Post Mortem vs. After Action Review: Key Differences 

Both practices are aimed at analyzing the aftermath of certain actions and making respective conclusions. However, they pursue somewhat different purposes.

The goal of conducting a project management post mortem is to dissect past events to explain what happened and why. The purpose of AAR, on the other hand, is to help the team prepare for a future challenge through analyzing the past.

Another important difference is that post mortems are typically planned after the project/event. After action reviews are planned before a project/event from the perspective that learning should take place during the project. The after action review format also assumes scheduling multiple meetings, not just one.

Typical Post-MortemTypical AAR Practice
Purpose: to dissect past events to document and explain what happenedPurpose: to prepare for a tangible challenge in the near future
Planned after the project or event, from the perspective that understanding and insight is clearest in hindsight. Meeting is held soon after project completion.Planned before the project or event from the perspective that learning and improvement must happen throughout the project. Multiple meetings throughout the project.
Takes place as a meeting of all involved, followed by a presentation to others
such as executives.
Takes place in small, task-focused groups, followed by action by those same people.
Reviews the entire process, aiming to be thoroughReviews moments, issues, or measures seen as relevant to going forward
Produces a detailed report containing analysis and recommendations for others.Produces an action plan that participants generated and will implement themselves.

Source: The Systems Thinker 

Benefits of an After-Action Review

A project post-mortem analysis is certainly valuable, and it may inform decisions about the next related project. But what if that failed project could have been more successful if only there had been some reviews along the way, at the end of each step or phase, that would have impacted the end result?

This is the whole point of after-action reviews and reports – to learn all along the way, to make the necessary changes needed in-process, and to improve the chances of a project’s success.

Consider the benefits that any organization, across all sectors, can achieve through after-action reviews.

  • An after action review gives the players the chance to evaluate what happened and why it happened. These types of discussions focus on learning (as opposed to who did what and potential blame). This totally differs from the post-mortem review that occurs after a project has failed and is declared dead. These types of reviews tend to focus on “accountability”, and leave team participants discouraged and sometimes guilty.
  • Problems can be discovered early on in the process and modifications made at that point. If, for example, a company has changed its supply chain management process, an AAR can occur after the very first run of a set number of supplied products, identifying snags, and fixing them before any more runs occur.
  • AAR can be used for more than just projects. Companies often plan training programs for their staff and/or teams. Conducting an AAR following the first session can be beneficial for assessing the effectiveness and making decisions regarding modifying future sessions. And when a safety event occurs in a manufacturing plant, an AAR can result in lessons learned for future prevention.
  • Regular AAR will improve relationships and communication among team members, especially because the focus is on learning from an action or activity. Team members think more about how to work together to improve results.

When to Use After Action Reviews

When to Use After Action Reviews

Source: Based on The importance of Action-Action Reports by Steve Finney, Jr.

Almost any activity that is conducted by a business organization can benefit from this process. Here are some additional instances in which AAR’s should be utilized.

  • New IT integrations: When a business is adding new software solutions, it makes sense to bring together the stakeholders during phases of integration, in order to assess what is working and what glitches users are experiencing.
  • New business strategies. Whether in marketing, human resources, operations, logistics, etc., any new strategy implementation will have issues. Rather than wait until the full roll-out, assessment along the way, as each phase is put into place.
  • Special projects. Most projects are designed and completed in phases. Holding AAR discussions after each phase of development will prevent the need for project management post mortem when that project is unsuccessful.
  • Departmental reorganizations. This can be a stressful time for everyone involved. As each phase is implemented, an AAR can bring those stressors into focus, identify the causes, and mitigate them as additional phases occur.

It is important to think about the risks of not conducting AAR analyses in these circumstances. The biggest risk, of course, is that mistakes, issues, or flaws go uncorrected, business goals/objectives are not met, and/or projects fail. The retrospective process of assessment after a failure has occurred wastes both time and money.

How to Write an After Action Report 

The standard After Action Review format assumes the following key steps:

  1. Plan the operation and set objectives.
  2. Launch the operation (e.g. first training session, initial run of a new product, etc.)
  3. Monitor what is going on, because some issues can and should be caught and “fixed” in-process (e.g., a machine malfunction).
  4. Close the operation/task.
  5. Conduct the after-action review.
  6. Prepare an after-action report based upon the review.

Here is a visual of an After Action Review template that you can use for quick reference:

Managerial Guide to After Action Review (AAR)

The Key After Action Review Questions To Answer 

Four questions must be answered during the after action review.

  1. What were the intended results? (goals/objectives of the action)
  2. What were the actual results? (goals/objectives met or not met)
  3. What caused the results that we got?
  4. What actions will we keep, what should be revised/improved, and what should be “dumped” (this is the learning that will drive what happens going forward)

The answers to these questions will be the “meat” of the after-action review report or presentation that will follow. Remember, the goal of this practice is to learn not to place blame. One of the things the Army says as the review process begins is, “Leave your rank at the door,” and this should be the mantra of all participants in the review process.

The Guiding Principle for Creating an ARR Report and Presentation

After-action review reports can be informal or formal, depending upon the audience for that report. Within a small team, for example, that report may be as simple as preparing a flip-chart of the results and the changes that will be made going forward. These can then be reduced to writing so that all team members have the changes that are to be implemented.

In other instances, however, a larger audience is involved, and a more formal report or presentation is appropriate. The ideal option is to use a business after action report template that will provide a visual depiction of the process and act as a facilitator during the discussion part. Below are several principles that should help you create a reusable after action report sample for your organization’s needs.

Rely on 4 Main After Action Review Steps

To conduct a successful AAR review section, ensure that the discussion follows the next 5 steps:

Step 1: Establish the intent. Every report should first clarify the objective. You’ll want to specify what are the intended results and metrics for the ‘action’ in question; why we are trying to accomplish them now and what results do we anticipate to get.

Step 2: Outline the performance. Mention the potential challenges that may arise during the execution; summarize what has been accomplished so far and provide a breakdown of the results achieved. Here a basic “input-output” template can come handy to make a presentation visually clear to an audience:

Command Center Dashboard PowerPoint template

The input in the after-action report template will obviously be the objectives of the action, the plan for implementation of the action, and the details of the launch of the action. The central portion will be the activities that occurred during implementation.

The output section will be the results of the action/task in meeting the original objectives and the review that took place (including what should be revised or modified for the next phase).

Step 3: Report on the learnings. At this part of your report focus on laying out the knowledge obtained by your team (or others) before execution, during the project and post-delivery. Your goal here not to focus on failure or blame, but rather provide a holistic view on:

  • What were the obstacles that prevented progress?
  • What were the systemic strengths and weaknesses?
  • How did these compare to the risks your organization has anticipated before execution?

Step 4: Provide a future outlook. Clearly communicate what types of adjustments you should make next time i.e. establish the corrective measures and a new execution sequence of an after action review.

Following the proposed 4-step approach will allow you to create a comprehensive and detailed AAR report, as well as a presentation (if needed), that could be later referred to by others in your organization. After all, improvements come as a result of innovatively-driven change based on individual feedback, reflection and learning. After action reviews allow to accomplish just that.

Conclusions

Ultimately, after-action reviews provide managers with a truly effective approach to identifying valuable insights from past experiences.  And the guiding principle of such reviews is that learning can be a continuous process as tasks and projects are launched and implemented in phases, and each phase is subjected to a review before going forward. When this model is adopted, as opposed to a final review after a full project is completed, the chances of meeting business goals and objectives are vastly improved.

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