After Action Reviews: A Simple But Powerful Tool


Nano-tools for leaders® – a collaboration between Wharton Executive Education and the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management – are fast and effective leadership tools you can learn and start using in under 15 minutes, with the potential to make a significant impact on your success as a leader and the engagement and productivity of the people you lead.

Contributor: Todd Henshaw, Principal Investigator, Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management; former director of military leadership, West Point.

The goal

Create a culture of continuous performance improvement and adaptive learning by systematically reviewing team successes and failures.

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Considered to be one of the most successful organizational learning methods, the After Action Review (AAR) was developed by the United States Army in the 1970s to help its soldiers learn from their mistakes and mistakes. achievements. Since then, many companies have used AAR for performance evaluation. And yet, as American systems scientist Peter Senge notes, efforts to embed the practice into corporate culture more often than not fail because “over and over again, people reduce the living practice of AAR to a sterile technique. “.

The process itself is an active discussion centered around four key questions:

  1. What did we intend to accomplish (what was our strategy)?
  2. What did we do (how did we execute against our strategy)?
  3. Why did it happen this way (why was there a difference between strategy and execution)?
  4. What will we do to adapt our strategy or refine our execution for a better result OR how to repeat our success?

AAR is not just an opportunity to focus on team performance – it also serves as a catalyst for cultural change. To set the stage for effective AARs, leaders must first create an environment of transparency, altruism, and candor where team members can challenge current ways of thinking and performing. Everyone, including leaders, should openly share the places where their own performance may have contributed to the team’s failure and recognize the people and practices that have contributed to the team’s success. Used regularly to assess successful and unsuccessful events, AARs will strengthen teams and improve performance, and can become embedded in the DNA of the organization. When key lessons learned from AARs are shared, the experiences of one team can benefit the entire organization.

The AAR is not only an opportunity to focus on the performance of the team, but also serves as a catalyst for cultural change.

Action measures

Reviewing the movements of an AAR is relatively easy – making AAR part of your organization’s DNA is the challenge. The following steps will help make AAR a “living practice” that can transform team and organizational performance.

  1. Schedule after action reviews consistently to learn from successes and failures. “Autopsies” have a negative connotation that discourages participation and enthusiasm. AARs should be held during or immediately after successful and unsuccessful events, using positive positioning to improve your own performance and not someone else’s.
  2. Gather relevant facts and figures related to the performance of the team. If project deadlines have not been met, product standards are ignored, or customer feedback is not factored into team execution, these facts lay the foundation for a well-founded RAA. on relevant data.
  3. Make participation mandatory and involve all team members in the discussion – even customers, partners and suppliers can be included. Each participant will likely have a different perspective on the event, and this is a key contribution to the AAR. Everyone’s voice is important, so you need to be able to take criticism from a few levels down. Open ended questions related to specific standards or expectations will encourage participation.
  4. Focus on three areas: the performance of team members, the leader and the team as a whole. Keeping the focus on the facts and the results, what are the strengths and weaknesses of each? This focus keeps the discussion centered on what the team can control (as opposed to what happens at headquarters or in another team).
  5. Follow the “rules of engagement”. To encourage honest participation and mutual trust, AARs should be: confidential (common learning is shared, but not individual feedback), transparent, focused on the improvement and development of individuals and teams, and in preparation for the next time “.
  6. Share learning across the organization. Many organizations, including Huber and Microsoft, use databases or blogs to make AAR lessons available through the intranet to all of their teams. Taking key lessons from other teams and allowing them to make the same mistakes or preventing them from duplicating best practices is ineffective.

How organizations use it

JM Huber Corporation uses AARs after every planned project and significant unplanned event. Their AAR discussion focuses on what happened, why, and what to do about it. After the meeting, employees post their learnings to a database and an online after action report is created, which includes action plans and lessons learned. Other employees around the world can search the AAR database on topics related to their work. Employees are motivated to participate with incentives such as the President’s Award for Excellence in After Action Review (AAR), which is awarded annually to a cross-functional team.

The strategy consulting firm Jump Associates organizes AAR-type debriefings after each client meeting. Employees, including senior managers, give each other feedback, offering at least one positive example and a concrete suggestion on how to improve. On a smaller scale, CEO and co-founder Dev Patnaik debriefed after every meeting and customer interaction for six months. The debriefings gave Patnaik the feedback that senior managers rarely receive.

Although referred to as “post-mortems,” Microsoft’s performance reviews have a lot in common with AARs. They take place at the end of each project, whether it is successful or not. General participation is achieved through discussions and resulting reports, which are disseminated to all participants via the intranet. Everyone is welcome to comment. The reports are then open to everyone so that continuous learning and best practices are accessible to everyone in the organization.

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