An After Action Review (AAR) is a simple but effective tool for improving team processes. It should be conducted regularly to create a smoothly running team that learns from its experience. You may also conduct an AAR for any occurrence within the team that you want to investigate and improve. Targets of the reviews might include protocols, decisions, work processes, and deliverables. Below you will find useful information about After Action Reviews that can be applied to virtual teams or even a face-to-face team.
The whole team should participate in an AAR, and the spirit of the conversation should be one of learning, not blame. Focus the conversation on the task and process, not on individuals or personalities. Even when the group is task focused, the purpose of an AAR is not to judge success or failure; rather, it aims to improve processes and prevent problems.
Be sure not to over analyze, as this will reduce the effectiveness of the reviews. We recommend posting the reviews on your team’s document sharing site for future reference. Bear in mind the reviews may also require some follow up once completed.
There are four questions the After Action Review considers:
- What was planned?
- What actually happened or occurred?
- Why did this happen?
- What can be done to make the process better?
Remember to schedule regular AARs when your team schedules its tasks and deliverables. Make sure that in every AAR (after the first one) you discuss the progress towards improvements planned in the previous AARs until the team is satisfied with the items being tracked for improvements.
Here are some AAR facilitation recommendations adapted from the website www.fireleadership.gov:
How to set up an AAR discussion
- Indicate that it is not a critique or meant to assign blame. Indicate that it is meant to be an open, honest, and professional discussion on how to improve the team’s process.
Restate unclear points
- When a point made by a participant is not clear to everyone, consider restating that point (e.g., “So you’re saying you think the helitorch should have started higher up the ridge, and that would have prevented……”).
How to handle the upward delegation of blame
- Participants will often blame the “system” for being broken, and that causes failures at their level. In such a situation, consider a response like: “OK, I agree, but that’s out of our hands. We still have to live with the fact that this issue places us in increased risk. So what can we work on at our level to improve?”
How to bring out the opinion of the “Quiet Ones”
- Some people just don’t process through discussion, but they usually are listening closely and when asked have good insights. Wait until a little later in the AAR and then ask them by name open-ended questions. “Well Ken, you were up on the road, what was your perspective on this?”
How to interrupt a dominant member of the group
- Some people just naturally like to talk. There is also a tendency for a leader to give all the answers. Interrupt them tactfully with a comment like: “I’m concerned we’re going too deep into this issue without getting any additional input. Let’s hear from….”
When the group is in denial
If one or more people think that everything went fine and you believe that something (let’s use “communications”) was not right, consider (in the order below) the following:
1. Act somewhat surprised. “Really? Interesting. Are there any other thoughts on how communications went today?”
2. Spur discussion with one of your own observations: “OK, I saw a couple messages that didn’t get passed to the folks holding the road. What was the plan there?”
3. Press a bit firmer: “OK, what I’m hearing is that you would do this exactly the same way again?”
4. Finally, do one of two things. If the issue is minor, let it pass. If the issue is important, then you may have to make the point blank observation yourself: “OK. You’re saying communications went fine. I saw two specific instances where we were right on the edge of the prescription and that did not get to either Mike or Susan. You’re telling me that is not a problem? What would have happened if we didn’t get that bucket drop?
Pursue an issue to its root cause
- The Japanese say always ask “why” five times. It’s a good technique to make sure that you’re really getting to the root cause of an issue. “So…the torches weren’t ready because they didn’t get fueled. And we’ve heard they didn’t have fuel because the fuel cans were on the other rig. Why did that happen?” Continue until you reach the root cause of an issue. Usually, you get to the root cause by the time you have asked “why” five times.
Use “negative polling” to ask questions
- This is an effective way to get quick agreement/consensus. It is faster than making sure everyone agrees. “Is anyone opposed to moving on to question #3 now?” or “Does anyone disagree that that was the plan, yet this is what really happened?”
Build up or eliminate ideas
- This technique merges complementary pieces from different ideas or highlights agreement on pieces of an idea when total idea is not agreed upon. “So is there anything you could add to that suggestion to make it work for you?” or “What could we delete from the idea to make it work better?”
Avoid win/lose decisions
- Look for a win-win situation with the group. “Does it have to be one way or the other? Could we agree to both?”
Ask open-ended questions
- This allows for a variety of possible responses while inviting involvement and participation. “Why do you think that happened?” or “What could we do differently next time?”
This is an example of an After Action Review created to give you a more concrete example of what they look like. As long as you follow the basic outline and the spirit of the AAR, your team can adjust them as appropriate for your project.
Event: First online team meeting
Date/time: Friday, July 6, 2007, 3:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time
Location of observation: 5 team members were all in their home offices (Larry in New York, Cheryl in Boston, Adam in Arizona, Marisa in LA)
What was planned?
Our main goal for this meeting was to get our meetings running, using Skype and Unyte so we can share documents and see each other’s screens. The expectation was that we might have some problems, but we would get the software running and start learning how to conduct meetings on this technology.
What actually happened or occurred?
- The team dynamics were very good. Everyone contributed to the discussion; there was no one dominating the conversation.
- From a technology perspective, we did not have a smooth start. Cheryl (Boston) had tech problems she didn’t know how to resolve, and her tech support staff member was unavailable. We didn’t know whether to continue without her or wait. Since this was primarily a setup meeting, we waited. Later we decided as a group that since it’s so difficult to schedule 5 people for a meeting, in the future if one person is having technology problems, we will continue working, but make sure to give detailed meeting notes to that person.
Why did this happen?
- Our ice-breaker exercise that we had done last week helped us get comfortable with each other and helped the team dynamics.
- We did not have a clear protocol on what we should do in case someone is unable to join a meeting.
- Some members are not comfortable with Skype.
What can be done to make the process better?
- Adam (Arizona) is a regular user of Skype, and had many helpful tips for the rest of us. Because of this, he offered to make sure we’re all up to speed on using Skype and Unyte by our next meeting (on July 18).
- To accommodate members who are unable to join our meeting, we should take minutes for each meeting. We will rotate the assignment of taking notes among team members. By Wednesday Larry (New York) has agreed to work out a schedule, based on our next 5 planned team meetings.
For another illustration of AAR’s application, see our post on After Action Reviews in which we describe its application to the LeadingVirtually team. Also, see this YouTube video on the usefulness and process of conducting an After Action Review, courtesy of the National Advanced Fire and Resource Institute.