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How to Conduct an After Action Review (That's Low-Stress)

What is an after action review?

An after action review (AAR) is a structured review or debrief for analyzing an event or project in the context of:

  • What happened
  • Why it happened
  • How it can be done better in the future

As you might expect, the idea originated with the U.S. Army after collective training exercises. Over time, it evolved from primarily military uses to business uses as a way to foster project development, best practices, and team accountability. 

There are some semantics to understand when considering the after action review, however.

An after action review is different from a debrief because AARs begin with clear comparisons of actual vs. intended results, which debriefs typically do not do. 

An after action review is also different from a post-mortem because the AAR’s focus is on participant actions. The learning from the review -- the “how” section in the bullets above -- is carried forward by the participants, whereas in conventional post-mortems it’s carried forward by the leader of the team. 

Also, commonly a post-mortem occurs a significant amount of time after the project was completed, and the observations of participants have dulled with time. After action review occurs closer to the events of the work actually happening -- or even within the thick of the project -- and thus the observations are live and current, not from three weeks ago. 

Think of stale food vs. fresh food, then apply that metaphor to project management.

While after action reviews are common in some industries, most of the academic work on studying them has found limited correlations between after action reviews and broader performance or individual success, i.e. self-efficacy.

How to structure an after action review

An after action review is centered on four questions:

  • What was expected to happen?
  • What actually occurred?
  • What went well and why?
  • What can be improved and how?

The core tenets of the process include:

  • An open and honest professional discussion
  • Participation by everyone on the team
  • A focus on results of an event or project
  • Identification of ways to sustain what was done well
  • Development of recommendations on ways to overcome obstacles

Some basic logistical factors: It’s generally recommended that AARs occur in-person, as opposed to via teleconference; obviously that’s more challenging during COVID, although with rapid testing and “pod” creation, it might be possible. The length of time for an after action review varies, but a recommended approach is 20 minutes per team member involved -- so 10 team members would be about a three-hour, 20-minute meeting. 

Leadership and facilitation: Outside facilitators have many benefits, notably that they don’t know the team and its corresponding politics, so they get less weighed down by those factors. If an external facilitator cannot be used and you need to use an existing team member, they should be prepared to participate as both facilitator and team member, where possible. 

Other roles: There should be a primary notekeeper and a timekeeper as well.

Supplies: Flip chart, markers, pens and paper for individual participants, and an after action review template (one can be found here).

Ground rules: Some core ground rules for an after action review, which might vary by organization and project being discussed, include:

  • Active participation: it is important for everyone to participate
  • Everyone’s views have equal value
  • No blame
  • No right or wrong answers
  • Be open to new ideas
  • Be creative in proposing solutions to barriers
  • “Yes….and” rather than “either/or” thinking
  • Consensus where possible, clarification where not
  • Commitment to identifying opportunities for improvement and recommending possible
  • improvement approaches
  • No record of the discussion will be distributed without the agreement of all participants
  • Quotes will not be attributed to individuals without permission

The flow of sections in an after action review:

The first section of the after action review is “What was expected to happen?” Some guiding questions in this area are:

  • What was the purpose and objectives?
  • Who was the audience?
  • What was the initial timeline?
  • Who was involved?
  • What outcomes and outputs were intended?
  • What products were to be produced?
  • What facilitators and barriers were expected?

The next section is typically “What actually occurred?” This is essentially a good/bad split. What was good, and what was bad? Full participation is encouraged here.

The third section is typically “Out of what went well, why did it go well?” This is a critical evaluation of the positives of the project/plan. Participants can discuss the negative elements in this section, but are encouraged to frame it in a positive light.

The fourth section is typically “What can be improved and why?” This is where you return to the “bad” list from Section 2 above and look at issues that arose and ways to fix them in the future.

The fifth section (final one) is typically a rundown of everything discussed, a quick discussion of the recommendations arrived at, and a quick look at the summary report soon to be released and when participants can expect that.

The summary report: 

The summary report should be sent out within 72 hours of the after action review, and the focal points should be:

  • Provide a clear summary of concrete and actionable recommendations that will improve the process.
  • Identifying tasks and topics requiring leadership attention.
  • Share the AAR report with participants, project sponsors, and any other stakeholders.

The No. 1 most important element of the after action review summary report is making sure it’s clear and concise and points to what went right, what went poorly, and where improvements can be made. K.I.S. -- Keep it simple. You want a leadership team, and project participants, to consume it and know quickly what happened, why it happened, and how things will be better in the future.

“Memory is less reliable than observation”

From a 2005 Harvard Business Review article on after action review pros and cons:

“We also studied a public agency that was running dozens of similar projects simultaneously. At the end of each project, team leaders were asked to complete a lessons-learned questionnaire about the methods they would or would not use again; what training the team had needed; how well members communicated; and whether the planning had been effective. But the projects ran for years, and memory is less reliable than observation. Consequently, the responses of the few leaders who bothered to fill out the forms were often sweepingly positive—and utterly useless.”

That same article notes that confusion about the after action review often stems from the idea that it’s a meeting, a post-mortem, a debrief, or something else familiar to corporate minds. In reality, AARs should be “more verb than noun,” i.e. a living, active process which consistently connects past actions to future goals. 

By creating tight feedback cycles between thinking and action, AARs build an organization’s ability to succeed in a variety of conditions.

The culture of continuous learning

An after action review is an example of continuous learning, in that team members are learning about the pros and cons of an approach as they go through it, then moving those lessons to the next work they have to do. It’s in line in some ways with a “team of teams” model -- also developed in the military. 

A “team of teams” model is, instead of silos and conventional hierarchy, a group of people are brought together on one project, they work on it for six weeks or so, and then everyone is disbanded to other projects. You might report through “marketing,” but you won’t consistently work on marketing projects. That’s also continuous learning, much like after action review. 

These are all approaches designed to get teams more comfortable with uncertainty and disruption by allowing for live, active evaluation of what’s happening and what should happen.

Continuous learning is a major workplace trend of the last 5-10 years, with brands like Trello even designing their Friday afternoons around the opportunity for employees to knowledge share on various topics. 

Because first-world, white-collar work is increasingly technological and knowledge-driven in nature, hence the title of “Knowledge Economy,” it’s very important for organizations to find opportunities for this continuous, in-the-thick-of-it learning and development. That’s a primary benefit of the after action review.

Are there drawbacks to the after action review?

Absolutely, there can be:

  • Any discussion of project pros/cons is inherently political, because someone who owned X-aspect of a project may feel threatened by others commenting on how it went poorly. Emotions can be high. A facilitator should be in tune with that and ready to diffuse where necessary.
  • When an after action review is conducted on an element of an ongoing project, meaning that the AAR takes place before the true outcome of the work is known, there can be confusion over what’s being discussed -- some may want to evaluate the “action” that just took place, and some may want to wait until the entire project is complete -- and there can also be concerns about doing a review as opposed to doing work that’s still needing to be done. 
  • Without a more formal process, such as the one described above, an after action review can backslide into post-mortem or debrief territory, or feel like another meeting of many. It’s important to make sure time limits are adhered to, emotions are kept in check, and the focus is on discussing the work outcome’s pros and cons.

Where does the after action review fit in to building a successful organization?

It’s one tool in the playbook.

Ultimately, organizations are a complex ecosystem of leadership communicationperformance coaching, strategic plans, feedback, conflict management, and much more. A good organization needs many elements working in concert to be a good organization.

The after action review is one piece that fosters a culture of continuous learning and encourages critical thinking and discussion on the pros and cons of projects, ideally creating a new set of best practices for the future. 

It’s one tool among many -- a powerful one if formalized and done consistently, just like most elements of improving work.

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