After Action Review
After Action Review (AAR) is a brief meeting of team members to reflect on an event or task they have just accomplished. The purpose of the AAR is for the team to learn from its experience in order to take the lessons learned into the next phase of the project or to accomplish the task more effectively the next time it is done. The AAR seeks to help the team develop insights about the event or task and turn that knowledge into action.
To keep the meeting focused on its purpose, the AAR has a specific format of group discussion around these four questions:
1) What did we set out to do?
What was our intent? What should have happened? Were there any differences of opinion among team members?
2) What did we actually do?
What would a video camera have shown? Avoid blaming any individual. Look at the sequence of events, roles, etc. to establish what actually happened.
3) What have we learned? Focus on what we have learned, not what we will do next. What do we know now that we didn’t know before? What strengths and weaknesses have we discovered? What advice would we give to others about how to best undertake the task or event?
4) What are we going to do? Based on what we learned, what will we do next time? Are there follow-up actions to be taken? If so, who will do what, by when? Are there others to whom we should communicate this learning?
Guidance for Conducting AARs
When should an AAR be held?
AARs are held at the end of a defined action, that is, a phase of a project or the accomplishment of a key event. It is the discipline of the regularity of these meetings that makes them effective. They are not called just to address an exception or a problem; rather they are a part of the way the work of the team gets accomplished – a work routine. The regularity also reduces team members’ anxiety that the meeting is about placing blame – a concern that arises when meetings are only held after something has gone wrong.
How long should the AAR meeting be?
AARs should be quick and to the point. The focus is on what just happened and what can be learned from it. AARs are not the time to address long-standing problems. In some organizations, AARs are “standing meetings” - everyone stands rather than sits - as a kind of tacit assurance that the meeting will be short. An AAR might last as little as 15 minutes or perhaps an hour, if held at the end of a month-long activity.
Who should participate?
Because the goal of the AAR is for the group to improve, the meeting should bring together all the people involved in carrying out the event or task. The information and ideas of everyone are necessary to get a full picture; someone may well have seen or been aware of some action or detail that others did not see. When everyone is in attendance, it sends an important visual message about accountability - no one is so unimportant (top to bottom) that they can avoid responsibility for what happened, and everyone (top to bottom) is responsible for making it happen more effectively the next time. In this way, AARs can help build the shared understanding of actions and results that is often critical to effective team performance.
AARs need to be facilitated.
AARs need to be facilitated by a member of the team. The facilitator’s responsibility is to keep the discussion focused on the few critical questions. After repeated meetings that responsibility may become almost perfunctory. The facilitator role may rotate between members or may be taken by someone in the group that is recognized as having particularly good facilitation skills.
Don’t assign blame.
The only way to learn in AARs is to get everything out on the table. To do that there has to be an agreement that no one gets into trouble (put on report; reflected in performance evaluation) because of what is discussed in an AAR. Without such a rule, team members are unwilling to own up to mistakes and equally reticent to speak about the mistakes of others. This is a hard rule to believe in, and it often takes a team a while to get comfortable with speaking openly. Equally important, this is not a “find the blame” meeting. Rather, mistakes are data to be taken into account in figuring out how to make the action more effective the next time.
Notes take are only for the use of the team itself.
Notes are taken at the meeting are only for the team’s use and are not distributed to other parts of the organization. The openness of the discussion in an AAR is greatly reduced if team members think their mistakes will be broadcast to higher levels. If important issues are raised that others in the organization need to learn from, at the end of the meeting the team can agree to what items can be shared and how.
What Does the AAR Look Like?
- The team meets as soon as possible following an action or event.
- The facilitator puts the questions to be addressed on a flipchart or white board.
- The questions are addressed one at a time.
- The facilitator manages the contributions:
- Calling on individuals who might have some special knowledge to contribute
- Preventing any one person from dominating the discussion
- Stopping any blaming behavior or punitive remarks
- Bringing the group back to the topic when the discussion strays
- The facilitator captures the ideas on a flip chart or asks a member of the team to do this.
- The facilitator manages the time so that all the questions are addressed in a minimum amount of time.
- Individual members take notes for themselves about what they need to do differently next time.
- Near the end of the meeting the facilitator asks for agreement on actions to be taken to get the desired results.