September 2014

Why is the Army's After Action Review (AAR) Such a Powerful Leadership Tool?

By Tom Deierlein

Just over a month ago my company completed and submitted a major proposal that could be worth millions over the next 5 years if we win the contract. We spent 6 intense weeks researching and writing it including countless nights and weekends. More than 20 people were involved including numerous outside subject matter expert consultants. In the end we got the fully compliant and competitively priced proposal submitted on time. But, just like every project, it wasn't without some bumps, set-backs, surprises (not the good kind), and hiccups along the way. The worst part is that some of the mistakes were repeated from previous similar proposal efforts involving many of the same team players. We will do this type project again in the not too distant future. So, this time we decided one week later to gather everyone together just like we did at the kick off meeting and conduct an After Action Review (AAR). Now I am confident that the next time we do it, we will do it better — not perfect, just better. We will be more effective and efficient by preventing many of the avoidable mistakes we made this time and by repeating the processes that went well.

So how does it work? Simple. Get everyone in a room and go around the horn and have everyone answer 2 questions:

  1. "What 3 things went well?"
  2. "What 3 things did not go well?"

If someone covers one of your three — you don't repeat it. Keep the pace quick, write it down, and make sure you understand their recommendations. That's it.



This "lessons learned" tool was developed by the Army and is now used in all branches of the military. The reason it is so powerful is that:

But it takes commitment and discipline. You have to schedule it like you do any other project meeting or event. Too many people want to forget and simply move on to the next thing. After all everyone is soooo busy. Right? Wrong! Don't make that mistake. Take the time and capture what went well and what didn't. You (and your entire team) will be glad you did.

When I was in Baghdad, we did an After Action Review after EVERY mission — 30 minutes after we got back inside the wire. EVERY mission. Why? It kept us focused, it allowed us to reflect. It forced us to improve each and every day. The stakes were high. Mistakes and flaws in execution get people killed so people actually looked forward to them. Many units would have them during the beginning of the tour, then get comfortable, lazy, and stop. Big mistake. Maybe you are getting better, but how about sharing best practices with those who will follow in your footsteps? We had an expression in combat — "Complacency Kills".

You can always improve your performance. In professional sports they do it by watching endless hours of game film. Trust me, you can spare a half hour.

In addition to gathering incredible insights to improve the organization, the added benefit for the leader is that people get a clear message that their efforts and inputs are valued, regardless of their role in the project. This is very motivational. Unfortunately, most people are reluctant to give feedback to others, especially their boss. So, this formally requests that they share and gives them a chance to really open up. Another ancillary benefit is that this creates a true culture of accountability.

Three points to remember

  1. First, check your ego at the door. Everyone needs to be able to have a frank and open conversation about weaknesses they observed. In the military we called it "leave your rank at the door".
  2. Second, please, please, please don't call it a "post mortem" which is Latin for "after death". Win, lose or draw — do an AAR. It is just as important to know why you win as why you lose.
  3. Third, if not enough people are commenting on your performance as project lead, you need to add that question in to let people know you are not off-limits and specifically want to hear how you could improve as well.

Final Thought

This is a powerful tool. You already took all that time and used all those precious resources to do the project or program. Take the last few minutes to review it with all key players and do it better the next time. If not, you not only run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past, you fail in one of your most important and fundamental roles as a leader — to improve the organization.