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:
- What were our intended results? What was planned?
- What were our actual results? What really happened?
- What caused our results? Why did it happen?
- 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?!
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.
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: