June 2017

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. "What 3 things that went well?" and "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 all over. 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 ½ 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 for them to 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 before I share some useful resources I found. 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". 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. 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.

After Action Review (via Wikipedia)

An after action review (AAR) is a structured review or de-brief process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better by the participants and those responsible for the project or event. After-action reviews in the formal sense were originally developed by the U.S. Army although less structured de-briefs after events have existed since time immemorial. Formal AARs are used by all US military services and by many other non-US organizations. Their use has extended to business as a knowledge management tool and a way to build a culture of accountability...

To apply this tool ask yourself and the team

After Action Review (via Knowledge Sharing Toolkit)

An After Action Review (AAR) is a simple process used by a team to capture the lessons learned from past successes and failures, with the goal of improving future performance. It is an opportunity for a team to reflect on a project, activity, event, or task so that they can do better the next time. It can also be employed in the course of a project to learn while doing. AARs should be carried out with an open spirit and no intent to blame. The American Army used the phrase "leave your rank at the door" to optimize learning in this process. Some groups document the review results; others prefer to emphasize the no-blame culture by having no written record.

AAR is a form of group reflection; participants review what was intended, what actually happened, why it happened and what was learned.

After Action Review Guide: Using Evaluation to Improve Our Work: A Resource Guide (via Dept. of Veterans Affairs’ QUERI — Quality Enhancement Research Initiative)

Organizational learning requires that teams continuously assess their performance to identify and learn from successes and failures. The After Action Review (AAR) is a simple but powerful tool to help you do this. Conducting an AAR at the end of a project, program or event can help you and your team learn from your efforts. Furthermore, sharing the results from your AAR can help future teams learn your successful strategies and avoid pitfalls you have worked to overcome.

First used by the Army on combat missions, the AAR is a structured approach for reflecting on the work of a group and identifying strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. It is routinely used by project teams in the VA’s Emergency Management program and by corporations such as GE, British Petroleum and Motorola. An AAR conducted after hurricane Katrina led to new systems for communications during natural disasters.

Two Powerpoint Downloads

  1. Water Security (Training Tools) via (U.S States Environmental Protection Agency) (don’t be surprised, this link goes straight to ppt download)
  2. Training the Force, After Action Review (via Army Study Guide)

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.

Reprinted with permission.