How could you use After Action Reviews?

The US Army uses After Action Reviews to great effect. Yet this team learning tool is rarely if at all used in business. Would your company benefit from systematic debriefs?

After every engagement, the US Army holds an After Action Review (AAR). Their purpose is to identify exactly what happened and why so that the unit can apply lessons learnt to their next engagement.

Several principles make AARs work better than less-structured post-mortems. Accountability for the operation is reinforced through a clear comparison of intended vs. actual results achieved. The AAR is conducted by the front-line unit, for the benefit of the unit, as soon as possible after the action – it is not a remote back office staff activity. No tells the participants what they should have done – they draw their own lessons and apply them to make themselves more effective next time. There is no allocation of blame or search for faults. The US military know that if participants sense a blame hunt, they will become defensive and no learning will happen.

An AAR can be formal, with a facilitator guiding the team. This may be appropriate for a major action – a new market entry, a new product launch, a strategic initiative. Short, informal AARs could be held by team leaders at every milestone.

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, the companies that learn the fastest will thrive, whether they are exploring new services, customer needs or technologies or business models.

The biggest business challenge to holding useful After Action Reviews is not time, but company culture – the culture is too defensive and aggressive to hold them successfully. But how about turning this statement around – how much could an effective AAR mechanism contribute to creating a more constructive culture and, over time, a learning organisation?