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Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

A training document for the Department of the Army begins with the statements, “Modern combat is complex and demanding. We must use every training opportunity to improve soldier, leader, and unit task performance. To improve their individual and collective-task performances to meet or exceed the Army standard, soldiers and leaders, "must know and understand what happened or did not happen during every training event.”

The document I am referencing is a training manual on how to conduct After-action reviews (AARs). AARs are widely used in the military. These reviews “identify how to correct deficiencies, sustain strengths, and focus on performance of specific mission essential tasks list training objectives.” These AARs help everyone understand what did and did not occur and why.

AARs create a feedback loop that compares the actual output of a process with the intended outcome. It takes honesty and candor to actually make this a meaningful exercise. Soldiers learn and remember more by participating in the AAR process than just getting a critique of their performance. In the military, AARs are conducted either formally or more spontaneously as informal reviews. The purpose of the AAR is not to punish or be hypercritical. It is a powerful learning tool to improve performance.

During my years as a consultant, I spent a lot of time interviewing employees of organizations. I was shocked at how often employees told me that they never got feedback on their performance. To grow and learn as an organization, you have to create feedback loops.

Every organization has key events, projects, and performances that warrant taking the time to do an after-action review. Business consultant and best-selling author Peter Senge has stated, “The Army's After Action Review is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised.” I encourage organizations to adopt this “habit” that has been so successful for the military.

Organizational After-Action Reviews

Organizations that seek continuous improvement can utilize AARs to engage and equip their workforce. Again, AARs are intended to focus on tasks and goals to discover why things happen. They are not intended to judge success or failure. Examples of when formal AARs can be used in the workplace include after major presentations, technology changes, or launching a new service or product. Informal AARs can also be used routinely. For example, they can be used after a client or customer encounter.

The leader uses these opportunities to ask open ended questions and to understand why certain actions were taken. Participants are challenged to explore alternative courses of actions that would have been more effective. Participants should also compare the results and actions with the expected standards and outcomes.

The biggest challenge to utilizing AARs in our organizations is time. In our hectic and fast paced schedule, we rarely take time to purposely have these type learning sessions. However, failure to do so slows our learning and can cause us to continually make the same mistakes over and over. It is also easier to bark a reprimand at an employee than to take the time to probe his or her actions and find a better way to do things. Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent keep you from benefiting from this powerful tool in your organization.

Personal After-Action Reviews

John Maxwell is one of my favorite authors. He is a prolific writer and effective speaker. In his book Today Matters he states, “People create success in their lives by focusing on today.” He emphasizes that, “It may sound trite, but today is the only time you have. It’s too late for yesterday and you can’t depend on tomorrow. That’s why today matters.”

I learned from reading his books about a habit he has of reviewing each day. He has list of questions that he asks himself as he reflects on his day. What he is really doing is having a personal AAR for each day of his life. When you take time to reflect and learn from your daily experiences, you create a powerful virtuous loop of improvement. I believe we create so many of our own “potholes” in life by needlessly repeating poor habits and behaviors. When you have a daily AAR you see these “potholes” clearly and can learn to avoid them.

I took his concept and created my own daily list of questions to focus my reflection on my day. I write out the answers to force myself to think through my responses. It never takes more than five to ten minutes, but it is one of the most important things I do each day. You can use this type of personal AAR to reflect on how you are doing on your goals and how you are living as compared to your values. This time allows you to see your progress in developing good habits and eradicating bad ones. Having a daily AAR is an investment of time, but one that pays large dividends.

While we might not be preparing for military battle, life and business do have significant challenges. In order to thrive and not just survive, we need to be constantly improving individually and organizationally. I encourage you to borrow the After-action review concept from the military and apply it in your own organization and personal life. You won’t regret it.

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