After Action Review Debrief Meetings

After Action Review Debrief Meetings

The After Action Review (AAR) is a type of debriefing meeting developed by the United States Army to help its soldiers capture the lessons, both positive and negative, from each mission.

The aim is to conduct a facilitated “post-mortem” debrief meeting to capture and document the lessons learned so that planning and execution can be improved for each future mission.

The process is focused on these key questions:

  1. What was the Goal?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What went well and why?
  4. What could be improved and how?
  5. Next steps?

From the business perspective, an After Action Review meeting could be relevant to use at the end of a major project, after an event, after a product development sprint, after a major sales presentation, etc.

I also recommend an AAR be built into each of the company’s Strategic Projects as the final task to check off before archiving the Project and moving on to the next one. Thus, if you are operating a cadence of a quarterly strategic planning cycle (where you review and update your company Strategic Plan every 90 days), it would make sense to perform an AAR meeting prior to each quarterly planning session, so that your team can “bank the learnings” before setting your Strategic Projects for the next quarter.

Stick to the facts.

Ideally, everyone who was involved in the Project or event should participate in the debrief session. Go through each of the questions in the order above, and allow each person to capture their individual responses in writing first, then share what they wrote with the group.

You want every person to share their honest observations as to what actually happened, but emphasize that their comments must be based on observable facts, not opinions or conjecture. Review the facts, and then look for the lessons they contain. An outside facilitator can help to keep people focused on the facts and finding solutions.

Beware the Planning Fallacy.

The Planning Fallacy is a term that describes our universal human tendency to underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete Projects and Complex Tasks.

Psychology plays a part in perpetuating this error. Salespeople are likely to underestimate the implementation time of a Project in order to close large deals with customers. Employees are likely to agree to optimistic due dates for Projects and Tasks because they want to please their manager, whether or not they are fully committed to the deadline.

Managers perpetuate this error when they let their people off the hook for failing to get Tasks done on time. When the manager fails to hold people accountable the pattern gets repeated over and over. People keep putting down unrealistic due dates and fail to keep their commitments to the team, and the Project Manager fails to achieve the overall goal on time. You create a culture where broken promises and a lack of accountability become the norm.

Conducting an After Action Review at the conclusion of each Project will shine a spotlight on where you may have fallen victim to the “Planning Fallacy”, or where the Project manager has failed to run effective meetings or hold people accountable for keeping their commitments every step of the way.

This is not a blame session.

The purpose of the AAR is to improve the way you operate in the future. You want to document the lessons learned and best practices that come out of these meetings so they can be incorporated into future projects. There will always be business execution strengths you can build on, and weaknesses you can improve on.

Participants should be encouraged to share their honest observations about what actually happened, but without blaming anyone involved. Yes, we must shine a spotlight on our problems and not put our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist, but it is equally important that we “bank the learnings”, move on from the past, and document what we will do differently next time.

Notes should be captured and shared with the wider organization afterwards. Some organizations capture the individual comments made during the AAR but don’t attribute them to any particular person in the meeting notes. They anonymize the notes to encourage openness and honesty during the AAR without fear of repercussions later. I understand why this may be the case, but this is not a witch hunt. Ideally, you want to build a high trust culture where people can speak candidly without needing anonymity.

Like most business execution best practices, it requires discipline to make After Action Reviews a habitual part of the way you plan and execute. These “rolling reality checks” should ideally become part of your company DNA.


Until next time…