Friday, 13 January 2017

6 reasons why After Action reviews are such a great tool.

After Action reviews are one of the core tools in Knowledge Management - but what makes them so powerful?


After Action Reviews (AARs) are like the Hammer in the Knowledge Manager's toolkit - one of the most basic and most important tools.

They are applied in many organisations around the world as part of their Knowledge Management Framework.  They are focused review meetings, relatively short in duration, designed to help the team become conscious of their own knowledge, so they can act on that knowledge as work progresses. It is like "learning on Tuesday to perform better on Wednesday". In addition, the learning can be transferred to other teams, but this is generally a secondary role.

 This process was developed by the US Army, who use it as their main knowledge-gathering process. It does not go into very great analytical depth, and so is useful for reviewing short-turnaround activity, or single actions. It is short and focused enough to do on a daily basis, perhaps at the end of a meeting or at the end of a shift. After Action review consists of a face-to-face team discussion around 5 questions:


  • "What was supposed to happen'?" 
  •  "What actually happened?" 
  • "Why was there a difference?" 
  • "What have we learned?" 
  • "What will we do about it?" 

So what makes AARs so valuable? Here are 6 reasons (and you can find 6 more reasons here);


  1. AARs are a conversation about knowledge. They are not progress reviews or individual evaluations, they are conversations with the sole purpose of discussing new knowledge and new learning. The very act of holding an AAR is an acknowledgement that knowledge is important.
  2. AARs are high bandwidth.  Face to face conversation is far and away the best method to surface shared knowledge and to discuss it. 
  3. AARs are culture change agents. People find that it is possible to open up and to share knowledge in a group session, with no risk and no comeback. 
  4. AARs are instant feedback. As people share their knowledge, they can see it being transformed instantly into actions and improvements. Instead of their knowledge vanishing into a black hole, they see immediate results.
  5. AARs are quick and efficient. They can take as little as 15 or 20 minutes, but may have a big cumulative effect. 
  6. AARs lead to action and to change.  Or at least, they should do. Question 5 is the key here - "What are we going to do about it"? AARs are successful to the extent that they lead to change and to action. If they are just talking shops - if all they do is lead to bullet points on a flipchart - then they are a waste of time. AARs should be used to drive changes and improvements in the way a team, department or organisation works. 

If you can apply AARs as part of your KM Framework to regularly drive improvement and change, then you have made full use of this simple yet powerful tool. 

2 comments:

  1. Nick, Thank you for snother excellent post. I am delighted that you are posting more regularly as I am confident you are creating a significantly larger audience. Having endured AARs in some form or another for over 40 years now, I can add a little I hope. I agree with your first five points and want to concentrste on point 6 - ' and now'.
    My initial younger experience fluctuated between delight and dread! If everything went well you could enter the AAR with confidence, but if you knew that something did not go well, there was often dread. In those days you never knew how it would reflect on you. I know that we should all be able to learn from mistakes and move on, but with many of my colleagues we felt we were also being judged and pigeon holed.
    I am confident that many will still chime with that now. On the positive side, providing AARs are treated as a main function and led at an oppropriate level, they can indeed lead to action and change. The best examples I have been part of were well led, attended at the correct level and quickly arrived at the key points of contention. Grip on the AAR was always essential, because what you wanted was a clear indication about who was responsible for addressing the main issues raised - they should be present at the AAR- and thus the initial task to resolve can be directed in the agreed presence of others.
    Finally this should be quickly followed up more formally with a directed note confirming the requirements and agreed leads with some outline of tracking timeframe. Then at least you are on the road to addressing some change.

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  2. In my experience, there is often tension between, on the one hand, what could/should WE (in the room) have done differently, and on the other hand, what others should do differently to make our lives easier/fix this problem that is not under our control. The natural tendency with any group not accustomed to these types of sessions, is to launch into a heated discussion of how others (management is an easy target in such cases) contributed to all the problems.

    Two factors can help keep this under control and maximize the value added:
    1. Detemine the exact purpose of the session to appropriately identify who needs to attend or control the objective of the session based on who will be there;
    2. Engage experienced facilitators to manage the tension mentioned above and achieve the objectives of the session, whatever the objectives are. Whatever the objectives and focus, make them clear at the beginning of the session.

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