I remember vividly as a young lieutenant being in charge of establishing a field testing site for soldiers and then executing the actual test that would determine their potential for promotion to the next rank. Upon completion of the event, I conducted an “After Action Review” (AAR). The process taught me valuable lessons about leadership and improving the performance of a team.
It was the first of hundreds of AARs I would participate in over my career in the Army.
Hotwashes or debriefs have been going on for years. The Army created its own AAR process decades ago, which has stood the test of time and been adopted by many over the years. Sports coaches are typically all over this. They create a game plan, participate in the contest, then after winning or losing, they have their own locker room talk. They meet with other coaches and players to determine what happened, why, and what they need to do to improve.
I find it interesting, however, that so many people in the corporate world don’t know about them. It is a simple technique that helps people become better leaders and organizations produce better results.
If you want to learn more, read on!
The AAR is universally adaptable. It can be used at any level by any leader in any type of organization or even at home. It is a process used to help teams of any size learn how to improve their performance. The process is most effective when it is used routinely within the organization providing that catalyst for consistent growing and learning.
The AAR Process
The AAR process has four fundamental steps:
- Plan. Plan ahead to ensure the time, location, attendees, and agendas are in place.
- Prepare. The leader needs to ensure the agenda is set and sufficient details are prepared to review to facilitate the discussion.
- Execution. Seek maximum participation, stay focused on the goals, and ensure someone is recording all the key points.
- Follow-up: Accountability needs to be established to ensure fixes are in place where necessary to address the gaps or shortfalls
Keys to Success
Leaders must embrace the four keys to a successfully executed AAR event. They are:
- What did we set out to do? There needs to be very clear understanding of the intent of the leader going into the event or activity. What were the mission, goals, objectives, standards, or outcomes identified to be addressed? What was the game plan? Or sales strategy? Or surgical procedure? Or leadership transition plan? Or client engagement strategy?
- What actually happened? This is the beginning of the diagnosis part of the process. All participants need to agree on what actually happened. Did we meet or not meet the standards or goals? What did we do well that needs to be sustained? What did we not do so well that needs to be improved? Open and honest dialog by all will enable comprehensive review of the details and help all learn and grow.
- Why did it happen? This is the second part of the diagnosis – examining why things happened the way they did. There is a root cause for everything that happens and a corresponding affect it had on the mission or goal. Sometimes it is easy to determine, other times it is not. Effective communication will be key to uncovering the truth. For instance, regarding shortfalls, was there a competency issue where people were not trained effectively to perform the task or were the standards not clear? For successes, what were the keys to achieving the success? Mistakes will be made in every event, and it will be important to ensure that the leaders underwrite honest mistakes by those who are doing their best.
- What are we going to do next time? This is the follow-up to the important learning from the three questions above. Actions must be identified and ultimately taken to ensure sustainment of those things done well and corrective actions are implemented to fix shortfalls. This is where the real learning takes place.
I encourage you to use AARs in your organizations. The Army Training circular TC 25-20 (30 September 1993) is an excellent source on this topic. AARs enable growth in leadership, build stronger teams, bring out the best in others, and ultimately produce better business results for the organization.
Becoming a better leader is a journey. I wish you the best!