Thursday 23 July 2015

When is an AAR not an AAR?

After Action review is a mainstay process in Knowledge Management, but it is also a tool that has caused much confusion. Here's why.

After Action review is a Knowledge Management process for discussing what has been learned from team or group activity.  Through facilitated dialogue, team members become aware of what they personally have learned, make sense of it collectively as a team, and draw out conclusions, lessons and action points to improve future performance.

AAR was developed in the Military in the 70s and 80s, applied in industry in the early 90s, and is well documented described in articles such as this one.  Everyone knows about it, and everyone knows that it is based on five questions -

  1. "What was supposed to happen'?" 
  2. "What actually happened?"
  3. "Why was there a difference?"
  4. "What have we learned?"
  5. "What will we do about it?"

I have visited many many organisations who have these five questions printed into little booklets for team use.

However, the term "After Action Review" is actually used in the military in two contexts;

  • There are the Informal After Action reviews, which use the 5 questions, and which review an event or a training day and involve a few people - say 5 to 20
  • Then there are the formal After Action reviews which are normally conducted at company level and above. An example is the 3-day conference on Bosnia-Herzegovina, the report from which you can find here, or the photo above. The formal AAR involves dozens of people, can last days, and is a very structured process.

The key point is you cannot run a big, formal review of something as complex as the Bosnia-Herzegovina by asking 5 questions. You need an altogether more comprehensive structure

The confusion therefore comes when an organisation adopts the principle of "learning from activity", reads about After Action reviews, picks up the "5 question" technique from the literature, and then tries to apply it to major projects.

This just doesn't work.

In Knoco, we try to clarify the situation by giving the two scales of review two different names - a practice common in the Oil and Gas sector.

We use the term After Action Review (AAR) for a short focused meeting, conducted by the team, for the team, lasting half an hour or an hour. These short AARs allow to you capture useful operational knowledge which is of immediate short term benefit, and which can be ploughed back into the next shift, or the next day's operation. This allows you to make course corrections during activity based on what you learn, address and optimise the way you work as a team, and begin to build your collective operational knowledge.  They involve the 5 questions listed above. 
We use the term Retrospect to describe a face-to-face meetings to review a project. The duration varies depending on number of people and the duration and complexity of the project. They can last from half a day to many days (one major multi-billion-dollar project we supported involved a total of 20 days of Retrospects).  The Retrospect contains a more comprehensive review of the project activity, work streams and outcomes, and the identification and prioritisation of learning points. The review of each individual learning points involves something similar to the 5 questions, but there may be 20 or more learning points discussed within a single retrospect.

By giving the two scales of event two different names, we hope to avoid the confusion that comes from applying processes which are inappropriate to the scale of the event.

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