If you are new to the organisation or have just taken over a new scope. There’s lots of excitement at the start.

You are aware of some gaps and look to create plans to plug them. There are loads of publicly available information from the internet, and anecdotal sharing from the team.

However, as you put your plan together, and look around for specific bits of data that can help you with converting goals to objectives, or whether trying a specific action in a channel might work, or whether a particular metric has been used in the past, you realise that there is no information about it.

That cannot be right, you think.

The organisation should have tried such actions before, and there would have been measurements, and opinions on whether it worked, or not work.

You have seen this before though.

Often, many organisations are primed to start and do the work. But to reflect and understand the work done, not as much.

You resign yourself to creating and executing your plan, understanding that the first few iterations will not be optimal. And that you have lost time.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the benefits of a summary of what worked, what went well or wrong, and how to better approach similar situations in the future?

Perhaps you can introduce the concept of the after-action review to your organisation.

Why do we need an after-action review?

An after-action review (AAR) is essentially a post-project review. These reviews are critical for future project success, by helping the project manager (or campaign manager) continuously improve on the delivery of the project across multiple variables.

AARs provide an opportunity to capture lessons learned from the project. By reflecting on the project’s outcomes, successes, and challenges, project managers can identify valuable insights, best practices, and areas for improvement. This knowledge can be documented and shared with the project team and future projects, enabling better decision-making and preventing the repetition of mistakes.

By reviewing the project’s objectives, timelines, and deliverables, we can assess whether the team met the project’s goals effectively and identify areas where performance can be enhanced.

With an after-action review, we can determine if all responsibilities were fulfilled, identify bottlenecks or breakdowns in communication, and hold individuals or teams accountable for their actions or inactions. This fosters a culture of responsibility and ensures that everyone learns from their experiences.

By analysing the project’s successes and failures, we can identify areas for process improvement, refine methodologies, and enhance delivery. The insights gained from AARs can be incorporated into future projects, leading to more efficient processes, reduced risks, and improved outcomes.

Conducting an AAR can facilitate learning, improve performance, encourage accountability, and support improvement. The AAR process helps project managers, and their teams reflect on the experience of the execution, identify future areas of growth/improvement and importantly carry forward lessons to future projects.

after-action review

What’s needed for an after-action review?

Here are the key components to hold a successful AAR and to document the learnings for future projects.

  1. Clear Objectives: Set objectives for the AAR to guide the discussion and to help the team focus on the areas of the AAR. For example, this can be to identify areas of improvement, or to evaluate the performance of the team.
  2. Conduct the AAR as soon as possible: Our memory can be a sieve and we can forget details the further in time we are away from the content source. By holding the AAR as soon as possible, we are able to capture accurate and meaningful reflection of the details and the experiences.
  3. Involve stakeholders and co-owners in the organisation: Engage with the stakeholders – such as team members, sponsors, subject matter experts, and leadership – by getting them involved with the AAR. Their perspectives can contribute to deeper discussions and understanding, helping to shape the analysis and lessons earned.
  4. Use a framework and document findings: The framework – whether by topic, area or timing – can help to guide the process. Capture nsights, lessons, identify areas for improvement, and any action items or recommendations. This documentation will become a valuable reference for future projects. 

Other considerations when conducting an AAR include ensuring that the team has a safe environment to share constructive feedback. There should be no repercussions from a performance perspective. Instead, the focus should be on learning from the outcomes.

Sidebar: A short history of the AAR.

The AAR started with the military and has evolved over time to become a widely adopted practice.

As a concept, it emerged during World War II as the US military looked for a tool to improve combat performance. The military recognised the need to learn from battlefield experiences and to adapt strategies. After each engagement, soldiers would gather to reflect on what happened, analyse their actions, and identify ways to enhance the next operation.

In the years since, the AAR has expanded beyond the military realm. It has been adopted across multiple industries and become an integral part of project management methodologies, crisis response protocols, and organisational learning.

The AAR has become such a widely used tool because it encourages knowledge management, provides a framework for improvement that can be used across the organisation and teams, and can handle complex environments.

With the AAR, organisations can use the tool to capture and disseminate insights, best practices and knowledge transfer. As a form of risk management, past experiences can help project managers identify potential pitfalls, refine processes, and help with decision-making.

Importantly, the AAR’s emphasis on open communication, accountability, and a blame-free environment resonated with teams that want a culture of learning, collaboration, and continuous improvement. Using the AAR also helped strengthen team dynamics, promote transparency, and encourage feedback.

The AAR’s evolution reflects a growing recognition of the importance of reflection, learning, and adaptation in achieving continuous improvement and success in dynamic environments.

Sharing the results of the after-action review.

Post-AAR, it’s critical to do a few things. The most important one is to share the results of the AAR with relevant stakeholders. Thereafter, we get to fix the issues and to communicate the outcomes of the fix with the same group of stakeholders, and likely the many others in the wider organisation.

When sharing the AAR results, think about customising the sharing to them. Consider the level of detail and presentation method that will resonate most with the stakeholders. For example, leadership may require a high-level summary, while team members may benefit from a more detailed report or presentation.

Prepare a clear and concise report summarising key findings, lessons learned, and recommended actions. Use bullet points, visuals, as well as clear and concise language to make the report easily digestible and accessible. Focus on the most significant insights and actionable recommendations.

As a communicator, use our strengths in storytelling to create a narrative that is engaging and relatable. This can be in the form of anecdotes and examples from the project. When sharing, find means to explain and illustrate the challenges, successes and lessons learned.

Based on the discussion and reflection across the various areas, a specific set of actions, responsibilities, and timelines can be created to address any issues. Share findings and outcomes with all relevant stakeholders and communicate lessons learned and action items to the wider project team, management, and other relevant parties.

Follow up on the progress (of changes to be made) and provide updates to demonstrate the team’s commitment to learning and improvement.

The proof is always in execution. For future projects, make sure that key points brought up in this AAR are solved for, or not repeated, and that the lesson learnt stays learnt.

3 tips to running a successful AAR.

Running a success AAR goes beyond just reflection, identification and action. There are some ways that you can improve on the engaging stakeholders, rallying support for changes to be made and sharing the information to the wider organisation.

The first tip is to engage in frequent dialogue with stakeholders. Dialogue should not be restricted to the start and close of the project. They should be updated throughout the project including the AAR. Apart from sharing a report, create opportunities for discussion through workshops, meetings, or bring it up at a Town Hall session. Ask stakeholders to share their perspectives openly, and turn this into a learning opportunity for the wider organisation.

The next tip is to use multiple communications channels to reach out to the wider organisation. Frame the AAR results as a way for colleagues and team members to learn quicker, from your project’s successes and faults, and not for them to make similar mistakes. Use email, intranet, the company blog, Slack channel, or organise a sharing session. It does not need to become an official event, holding it in the pantry or common gathering area for 10 minutes is better than letting the document languish in the company cloud.

The last tip is about using visual aids to help others understand the data and findings better. This can be in the form of charts, graphs and infographics.

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