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Friday, October 16, 2020

A Guide to the After Action Review Process

I think we all know in principle at least that some sort of post-activity accountability is good, so improvements can be made to the next project, or the next phase.

Far too often, we skip this, or have vague chats about it. But we at CWG prefer the term and the process of the After Action Report. After an activity, you sit down and talk about it.

After Action Reviews are collaborative, inclusive assessments performed after any major activity or event. Ideally, everyone is involved. For exercises, have both sides attend both AARs, or do them both sequentially in one meeting. Tell everyone what the process is before you start. Show them this document, and make them stick to it. The moderator must interrupt people if they don’t follow the process. And the process is:

Get everyone in a room. Be ready to write things down where they can be seen, get a good moderator (preferably not from the team) and in turn discuss the:
  • Plan
  • Performance
  • Issues
  • Fixes
One person talks, everyone else listens, everything gets written down. Ideally, few computers are open and all the participants just listen. 

Plan

Communicated by the most senior actual battlefield leader:
  • What did you intend to happen?
Do not talk about what actually happened. Usually, you do not even describe changes in the plan at first. From the original plan, describe one or more of the following:
  • End state, what did you expect it to look like when done
  • Operational guidelines
  • Plans and coordination
  • Timelines, schedules
Brief, but complete, it should not take more than about 5 minutes. If it can be done in 30 seconds, all the better. It doesn't have to be done from memory, so the orders documents can be referred to, but don't just read an OPORD out loud.

Try not to project anything or use PowerPoint, but communicate by speaking of the issues instead. 

It can be good to have higher level goals discussed as well, so feel free to refer to the orders received or even to invite the next higher level command to the review process, if available. 

Write down all of this. Any method you like is good, from typing, to whiteboard to post-its.

Performance

For this step, the leadership cannot talk. Instead, everyone else talks. Usually, "everyone" is just the next level or two of command on down, vs every soldier involved, but still get them to answer:
  • What really happened?
Try to go around the table, and get everyone to provide input in turn. Make sure everyone is engaged. None of that false engagement by asking “does anyone else have something to say.” Instead go one by one around the table, or down the TOO.

Even if a respondant they say “it was said” then ask which one they would have said so that can be emphasized. It assures they feel engaged, and increases accuracy. They might have misheard, added their interpretation, or have a slightly different point to make.

Analyze these results: Compare to the Plan step. Looking for deltas here, and considering it like this helps make it more brief. Improvements over the Plan are fine. Cover all changes from the plan.

Again, go step by step. Do not say why anything happened. Just what happened.

Issues

This time, everyone can talk, although the most senior leadership should go last to assure they do not influence all other answers.  

Many AARs open this up and everyone raises hands and gets called on, but I think that’s risky. So again, everyone in turn should be called on to answer:
  • Why did those things happen?
"These things" are the performance phase items. Why did the things that are written down from the previous phase happen. New things that happened either should be ignored, or you have to stop and write them down on the what-happened list first.

If leaders seem to be taking over, or anyone steps on someone else, it is the moderator’s job to stop it. Everyone can help keep on target. 

Going around the table again is probably the best way, but if everyone is getting tired of this at least make sure there is minimal back-and-forth discussion, to avoid arguments or the original point being lost in the discussion. One person talks, and the point is put up, and that’s it. 

If the person bringing up the issue says they are not sure why; then go to raising hands, and one person responds at a time. Keep this under control. 

Some other notes:

  • You can consolidate items in the Performance step to single issues.
  • Try not to bring up Issues that are not gaps in Performance.
  • Discuss positive changes from plan or expectation, not just problems.
  • Participants might disagree. Some discussion is acceptable but if they are not going to agree, just write down both and move to the next phase. 

Fixes

Again, everyone talks. Same methods as above ideally to be sure everyone is engaged equally. If everyone is playing nicely, this may go towards raising hands, but I do find that people who don’t actively volunteer still have ideas and we need to drag it out of them.

Instead of talking, sometimes having everyone write their ideas on Post-its to share is a fine idea. This also works well if the team is very large so it would take too long to get all ideas out there. 

The core question is:

  • What could be done differently to Improve this issue OR,
  • What should be done the same, to Sustain this success in the future?

How to do this?

Try to address each Issue in the above list. Try not to discuss Fixes for things not already discussed.

Classify each item as “Improve” or “Sustain.” Either it was a problem to fix, or a benefit to keep. 

Note that many Sustain items are small. That doesn't mean they aren’t beneficial. Try to notice all that was done well, even if small, and accidental. 

Everything must be actionable, at least for permanent organizations (ad hoc game/exercise environments can skip this). Even Sustains. Assign a person (not a team, an individual). That individual must be there, and agree to it. Even if they can’t fix, they can find the person who can fix it, and it’s still their responsibility.

Fixes should still not be personal. Even if the problem was a person, don’t use this to simply point fingers. Instead provide training, provide more communications, move them to a place or role they fit better, things like that. Everything must be actionable, and their boss more likely gets the actions, not them.

Remember in general this should not be a griping session, but sticking to the process means that issues can be brought up that might have otherwise been perceived as an attack.

You are not allowed to say “Joe wouldn’t let us do x” because you have to say “We failed to perform activity x” and then some time later, you can explain why, and very often someone else will. Many times, in my experience, the person responsible will even do it for you. “Oh, I stopped that because…” You learn there are reasons, and it’s not all incompetence and personal bias.

These often become effectively team building exercises as you learn about everyone else, and how their role really works in practice.

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