How do you fix a failed operation? How do you repeat unexpected success? How do you ensure that disaster never happens again? Every organization should ask questions like this.
In the 1970s, the US Army developed an answer: the After Action Review, or AAR. In the decades that followed, businesses embraced the practice, which attracted a lot of attention after its publication. seminal HBR article in 2005. Today, it is practiced regularly by large corporations, among them Microsoft and Boeing, and it has become a common response to crisis in many other organizations.
AAR has achieved this popularity because it can be very effective. This will stop the income from nosediving. It accelerates growth. This will prevent tragedies from happening again.
But the truth is, most AARs are ineffective. Instead of doing an in-depth and honest analysis of the error and management, they are reduced to a pro forma exercise. Leaders use it to hide accountability and cover up mistakes. Inconvenient opinions are ignored or silenced. Avoid difficult conversations and painful reflections. The superficial changes are well publicized, and the organization pats itself on the back and moves on.
None of this is new. As Peter Senge observed 30 years ago: “The Army’s After Action Review (AAR) is one of the most successful organizational learning methods ever created. However, most corporate efforts to link this truly innovative practice to their culture fails because, time and again, people reduce the living practice of AAR to a sterile technique.
We have spent the last two years working with US Army Special Operations teams to study the brain science of resilience and creative problem solving and to develop new techniques to process trauma and grow psychologically from failure. In total, we have more than 60 years of experience studying and facilitating AARs for teams around the world where the consequences of failure are catastrophic. Through thousands of AARs, many for critical incidents, we’ve witnessed what works and what doesn’t – and we’ve lived the aftermath of both.
To solve the problem of poor AARs, we launched a collaboration with US Army partners. We worked with elite, top-tier Army Special Mission Units and made a simple set of modifications to the original AAR. We’ve tested the changes hundreds of times outside of the Army, in organizations from the FBI to the Gap. The changes, we found, greatly improved the effectiveness of the AAR, leading to a significant increase in performance: In a long test, carried out by a large crisis response organization in a two-year period, productivity after AAR increased by more than 150%.
Here we will share what we have learned, first by covering the history of AAR, then by debunking three myths about it, and finally by providing three recommendations for improvement.
The Original AAR
The AAR was created by the Army as a replacement for the so-called performance critique: a lecture, given by a commander after the completion of a project or task, that identifies mistakes and orders changes. Its purpose is to improve performance, but instead it often causes alienation, anger, and division.
To solve these issues, AAR is designed with two key features:
First, AAR is participatory. Instead of a top-down reprimand, it’s an open conversation among team members. The goal is to surface each perspective – to harvest all existing insights and to ensure that the entire team feels included, eliminating frustration and promoting unity.
Second, AAR is narrative. Instead of listing directives, it checks the event history. This narrative approach allows for more specific analysis. Rather than abstracting failures and successes into universal principles, it connects precise circumstances and behavior to precise outcomes. And because the human brain learns best from narrative examples than common doctrines, this method is also more effective in making organizational change.
To form these two new features, AAR was created in four parts, each centered on a different question: 1) What do we expect to happen? 2) What really happened? 3) Why is there a difference between what we expect and what actually happened? 4) What should we change next?
Approximately 25% of the time was devoted to Parts 1 and 2, with the remaining 75% devoted to Parts 3 and 4. To encourage full participation, a neutral third-party facilitator was used .
3 Myths About AARs
AAR is better than previous performance review methods. But three myths about AARs hinder their proper use:
Myth 1: AARs are optional. Not all organizations run formal AARs. But each member of each organization runs them informally. That’s because after every perceived setback and failure, the human brain automatically runs a process known as counterfactual thinking. It identifies the gap between expectations and reality, and it imagines: What if I had done something different?
In practice, this means that everyone on your team comes to conclusions about what went wrong and what could be improved. The question for you is: Do you want these AARs to happen in private, in break rooms and coffee shops, differentiating insights and breaking your team? Or do you want it to happen collectively, so that everyone can benefit from the complete story – and so that your team can develop a unified sense of purpose?
Myth 2: The purpose of AARs is to create a list of lessons learned. Wall lists look great. But the goal of AAR is to make changes in the behavior of the group. Those changes require behavioral changes, positive emotions, and specific action items. All three are generated in the brain through narrative – that is, through the specific stories people tell themselves about what happened and why. So the true purpose of an AAR is to create a collective story that everyone owns as their story, turning the wheels of their future performance.
Myth 3: AAR participants can agree to disagree. For an AAR to work, everyone must share the same narrative. Dissent cannot be a silo. The differences cannot be put on paper. Consensus cannot be imposed on leadership. The entire experience of each of those events should be filmed. You have to have the hard conversations.
It is not always possible to reveal the truth after the fact. But an organization should not allow its members to form their own atomized opinions about what is working and what is not. The organization must openly own the ambiguity, and proactively address it through future operations.
With the myths debunked, here are three ways you can improve your next AAR.
1. Influence a community, not a process.
Traditional AARs focus heavily on process. And for good reason: The process is impersonal. This allows participants to identify mistakes without pointing fingers, limiting the spread of blame and defensiveness that inhibit organizational learning.
Change, however, requires personal commitment, which is diminished by overemphasizing the process. The process is abstract and detached. It engages the thinking centers of the brain but neglects the emotional centers that are critical for driving action.
To prevent AARs from becoming pro forma exercises, make sure you focus on the team, the customers, and other members of a community. Identify their motives for seeking change. Share stories about how the event affected them personally. Discover and share those personal stories first.
2. Spend 75% of your time on Part 2.
This change is simple – and revolutionary. In a traditional AAR, participants quickly move on to Part 2 (“What really happened?”) to focus on Parts 3 and 4 (“What went wrong?” and “What can we do?” which is better?”). In our updated AAR, almost all available time is devoted to Part 2. That allows each part of the event to be parsed from the perspective of everyone involved. This radical change in timing ensures that everything known about the event is visible. It guards against jumping to conclusions or silencing different perspectives. And it recognizes that the collective perception of an event helps individuals reflect productively on their own memories.
This shift may seem to diminish the late AARs, but it actually strengthens them. It allows action items to emerge organically from a dissection of what is actually happening, providing a short list of incisive and motivating developments that are empirically derived and have emotional purchase. the entire team.
3. Tell the whole story.
Traditional AARs seek to promote inclusiveness and openness by strictly avoiding blame. This is a good intention. But this often leads to a counterproductive dynamic: Some individuals avoid responsibility for their behaviors while others play the martyr and assume responsibility for consequences that are not their fault.
Of the hundreds of AARs we’ve run, this dynamic is the single biggest source of failure. But the cure is simple. Whenever an individual claims responsibility for a certain outcome, or an individual points to bad luck or other external factors as the sole cause of an event, including every someone who is physically present to share their version of what happened. In short: Reconstruct the entire narrative of the event, step by step and completely, as everyone remembers it. This will dig deeper into the causes of good and bad results.
. . .
The changes we’ve laid out above improve AARs by expanding the shift toward narrative engagement. We’ve seen them deployed to repair mission-critical teams that have suffered catastrophic failures, including fatalities, and to strengthen large organizations that have endured major failures and unexpected successes. . Changes work, and they work for you. At the end of any project or event, stories will be told about what happened, so the real question to ask as you conduct your next AAR is this: Will stories strengthen or diminish your organization? ?