How to Perform a High Quality After Action Review

December 19, 2016

You just finished a project, event, engagement or training exercise. It’s time to get some feedback. What do you do next?

The After Action Review (AAR) was originally developed by the U.S. Army to analyze and report on training exercises. Today the military uses a range of formalities (as do countless industries and organizations), but the essence is to capture two elements: what went well and what can be improved in the future.

Socrates uttered the immortal phrase, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Examining professional events may seem less dramatic, but it’s a critical component if you wish to improve. Also, keep in mind that an AAR shouldn’t substitute for a comprehensive program evaluation. (In fact, an AAR only partially measures to Level 1 on the Kirkpatrick Learning Evaluation Model.)

Here are several simple tips for performing high quality after action reviews.

Ask the Two Key Questions

What went well? What could be improved?

Your AAR needs to focus squarely on these two questions. The first captures the successes, breakthroughs and positive elements of the event. You aren’t looking for perfection, just positive performance. The second isn’t meant as an indictment, but should capture both the negative elements and possible alternatives for the future.

Ask in Advance

If you openly state you will be performing an AAR following the event, you prepare your audience to take mental (and hopefully actual) notes throughout the session. Sometimes this is appropriate for everyone involved, sometimes just for a subset (e.g. team leaders). Regardless, if you play a program leadership role, make every effort to create the expectation upfront.

Compile, Share, Archive

During an AAR, it’s crucial to compile all the feedback shared for possible follow-up. Share it with the appropriate parties – a report for the boss and action items for the process owners. Perhaps most importantly, save it in an archive where it can be easily accessed in the future. Ideally, you should consult a previous event’s AAR before you begin planning a new one.

Say Thank You

It’s hard to get good feedback – especially if you’re combative. Resist the urge to give unnecessary feedback on the feedback. You don’t need to argue or explain. If your team is evaluating the performance, it may make sense to go deeper, but with a large group, simply say thank you.

After action reviews might seem like extra work, but it’s critical work. Improvement is much harder without it.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or follow him on Twitter.