My product management toolkit (41): After Action Review (AAR)

I’m sure most of us will have been in a post-mortem at some point in our careers, to look back on a particular project or event. Derived from the medical world, the purpose of a post-mortem is to analyse a project and explain as well as document what happened. A detailed and thorough post-mortem takes place soon after a project or a campaign has been completed, the idea being that we can learn most in hindsight. Similarly, you might have been in a pre-mortem where we have an upfront look at the things that could potentially go wrong in a project or with an initiative.

If we look at at an “After Action Review” (AAR), this happens throughout a project or an event. Hailing from the military world, the main goal of an AAR is to collate lessons early and often, which lessons can then be applied and validated:

  1. What were our intended results? What was planned?
  2. What were our actual results? What really happened?
  3. What caused our results? Why did it happen?
  4. What will we sustain? Improve? What can we do better next time?

Instead of having one post-mortem after a project, AARs happen in small task-focused groups of people, followed by action by those same people.

An AAR is all about emergent learning, and putting the learnings into a practice as soon as possible. With most post-mortems, they take place once the project has been completed or — worse — after the project has failed. As a side effect, ‘finger pointing’ is another aspect I’ve often experienced with post-mortems; who’s accountable for those things that have gone wrong?!

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Facilitating an After Action Review — Credit: Mohamed Boumaiza

In contrast, an AAR is a short but structured meeting, and zeroes in on the following elements:

  • Focuses on why things happened.
  • Compares intended results with what was actually accomplished.
  • Encourages active participation.
  • Emphasises trust and the value of feedback.

On a more granular level, you could approach an AAR session like this:

What were our intended results?

  • Gather all participants.
  • Set the scene: purpose and rules of engagement.
  • Collaboratively review and summarise specific events or actions.
  • Participants state their portions of the respective events or activities.

What were our actual results?

  • Participants explain what actually happened from their point of view.
  • Ask the following questions to guide the conversation as well as encouraging others to ask questions too:
  • “Why did we take certain actions?”
  • “How did you react to certain situations?”
  • “When were certain actions initiated? Why?”

What caused our results (lessons learned)?

  • Relate events to subsequent events or outcomes.
  • Participants tell stories to convey their experiences.
  • Explore alternative courses of action that might have led to different results.
  • Handle complaints constructively and positively.
  • It’s ok to attack an idea or an action but not the person.

What will we sustain or improve?

  • Go over the main points — using the discussion notes — to make sure all key problems or insights have been addressed.
  • Assign people to relevant followup actions.
  • Call out what worked well, save the good ideas and encourage participants to come up with new ideas or improvement actions.

How and when can we apply our lessons learned?

  • Collectively look at opportunities — sooner rather than later — to use our lessons learned.
  • Identify those points from the AAR that will be applied, how, when and by whom.
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After Acton Reviews are highly interactive — Credit: Christina at WOCinTech

Main learning point: I’ve covered both pre and post mortems, and an After Action Review offers a great a way to learn throughout. A good AAR happens early and often, is highly collaborative and outcome focused.

Related links for further learning:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After-action_review

https://hbr.org/2005/07/learning-in-the-thick-of-it

https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newPPM_73.htm

https://www.betterevaluation.org/en/evaluation-options/after_action_review

http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/leader/leadaar.html

Written by

Product at ASOS, author of "My Product Management Toolkit", family, boxing and founder of @hiphoplistings and blogging via http://t.co/uGr5nRye

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