A successful after-action review trains better leaders, yields better results

I remember vividly, as a young lieutenant, my first big task for my commander. I was to lead the planning and execution of a field-testing site for soldiers to determine their potential for promotion.


Upon completion of the event I conducted my very first after-action review (AAR). The process taught me valuable lessons about leadership and improving the performance of a team.

I would lead or participate in hundreds of AARs over my 32-year career in the Army.

“Hotwashes” or “debriefs” have been going on for thousands of years. The Army created its own AAR process decades ago, which has stood the test of time and been adopted by many organizations over the years.

Sports coaches typically are all over hotwashes. They create a game plan, engage in the actual contest, then conduct their own locker-room chalk talk after the competition is over. They meet with other coaches and players to determine what happened, why, and what they need to do to improve – one great example of an AAR.

I find it interesting, however, that so many people in the corporate world don’t know about AARs or how to conduct them. It is a simple technique that helps train people to become better leaders and produce better results for an organization.

If you want to learn more, read on!

The AAR is universally adaptable – it can be used at any level by any leader, in any type of organization or even at home. The process helps teams of any size learn how to improve their performance. The process is most effective when it is routinely used within the organization.

The technique is straightforward. There are four fundamental steps:

What did we set out to do? There needs to be a very clear understanding of the intent of the leadership going into the event or activity being reviewed. What standards, goals, objectives or outcomes were identified to be addressed? What was the game plan? Or sales strategy? Or surgical procedure? Or leadership transition plan? Or proposal strategy?

What actually happened? This step begins the diagnosis part of the process. All participants need to agree on what actually happened. Did we meet or not meet the standards or goals? What did we do well that needs to be sustained? What did we not do so well that needs to be improved? Participation from everyone is key to ensure comprehensive review of the details and for all to learn.

Why did it happen? This step is the second and typically the most difficult part of the diagnosis - examining why things happened the way they did. There is a root cause for everything that happens and a corresponding effect it had on the task or mission. Sometimes it is easy to determine; other times it is not. Effective communication will be key to uncovering the truth.

For example, regarding shortfalls: Was there a competency issue where people were not trained effectively to perform the task? Were the standards not clear? Was planning incomplete?

For successes, what were the keys to achieving the success? There will be successes and mistakes at every event, usually. It will be very important for leaders to underwrite honest mistakes in the pursuit of excellence if the AAR is going to be a learning experience.

What are we going to do next time? This is the follow-up to the important learning from the three steps above. Actions must be taken to ensure sustainment of those things done well, and fixes are implemented to pursue where shortfalls occurred. This is where the real learning takes place.

Keys to success in making this AAR process valuable in your organization are:

Honest dialogue. Create an environment in which open and honest professional discussion takes place. AARs are not lectures by the senior leaders.

Planning. Plan ahead to ensure the time, location, attendees and agendas are in place.

Preparing. The leader needs to ensure the agenda is set and sufficient details prepared for review to facilitate the discussion.

Execution. Seek maximum participation, stay focused on the goals and ensure someone is recording all the key points.

Follow-up. Accountability needs to be established to ensure fixes are in place where necessary to address the gaps or shortfalls.

I encourage you to use AARs in your organizations. They are great ways to learn how to be better leaders, build stronger teams, bring out the best in others and ultimately produce better business results for the organization.

Becoming a better leader is a journey. I wish you the best!


(The writer – a retired U.S. Army brigadier general – is a leadership consultant, coach and author. His e-mail is jwfoley@loralmountain.com; his website is loralmountain.com.)



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