Back in the heyday of buzz about “the learning organization” as a concept, David Garvin wrote about the Army’s practice of After Action Reviews (AARs). The practice is deceptively simple, but powerful when done properly, and I think there is a lot of value in it for the individual lifelong learner.
So what’s an After Action Review?
Fundamentally, it’s an approach to reflecting actively on recent events and learning as much as you can from them. It’s driven by four core questions:
- What did I set out to do?
- What actually happened?
- Why is there a difference between the first two?
- What should I continue and what should I change?
An After Action Review can apply to just about anything at anytime. If you have just completed a project, closed (or lost) a sale, taken a test, weighed yourself, or done anything else in which you care about the results and may want to replicate or improve them going forward, the time is probably right for an AAR.
One of the keys to making the review successful is to start asking the questions above as soon after the learning event as possible, so that your memory is clear. (And, of course, there is an argument here for for asking questions and taking notes while you are engaged in whatever activity you plan to review.)
In asking and reflecting upon the questions, you should spend roughly 25 percent on the first two, 25 percent on the third, and 50 percent on the fourth.
What did I set out to do and what actually happened?
Even though they should take up the smallest slice of your review time, it is critical not to skip these first two questions. Garvin notes that organizations tend to jump to the third question – which involves diagnosis and judgement – without establishing an objective view of the facts on which everyone involved can agree. I’d argue most individuals do this as well. We tend to start with “what could I have done differently” or “what went wrong,” while holding – consciously or unconsciously – a distorted view of our original aims and the events that occurred.
Remember: whether you are talking about a mirror or your mind, reflection is a product of what is actually reflected upon.
Take the time to clarify, and withhold judgement as you do. I recommend actually writing down what you set out to do and then what actually occurred. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I advocate both goal setting (prior to a learning experience) and effective note taking (during a learning experience) – these practices help set the stage for higher value reflection.
Why is there a difference between the first two?
It’s with this question that you become more analytical and start looking at cause and effect. However, because you have taken the time to ask the first two questions, you are much more objective than might ordinarily be the case. If there is a difference between what happened and what you had expected or hoped to happen, what seem to be some of the key reasons? Do some seem more important that others? If you closed your last sale, or past your last test with flying colors, but weren’t as successful this time, what changed?
As you can see, this is an exercise in problem solving. Sometimes the solution are quite simple. If the scale shows an increase of five pounds, the half dozen donuts you ate last week are probably the smoking gun. In other cases though, the problems may be much more complex and require some creative o0r conceptual blockbusting to solve.
There is also an element of accountability and responsibility here. You have to willing to own up to and accept whatever weaknesses the process reveals. But take heart in the fact that you will almost certainly find strengths along the way as well.
What should we continue and what should we change?
This question is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. What are you actually going to do as a result of this reflective process? As Garvin suggests, you have to be careful at this point to focus on what you can actually fix. If you failed on a sales call, for example, and price was a key factor, you can’t magically give your prospect a larger budget, but you can shift your targeting to prospects that are much more likely to have the necessary funds. Similarly, you don’t have any control over what the questions will be on a test, but you can control the steps you take to prepare for a variety of different questions.
Also, make sure you identify what needs to be “sustained”going forward. That is, what contributed to your success, to the extent that you were successful – you will most likely want to make sure you repeat these actions or behaviors in future situations.
Preconditions for Successful After Action Reviews
As Garvin suggests, successful AAR’s don’t just happen: you have to be prepared to make them happen. Some of the key factors are:
- Consciousness and commitment: In the first place, you have to be aware of your experiences as potential learning activities and choose to engage with them as such. Sounds easy enough, but we routinely experience things and then move on without making any real effort to reflect.
- Open Mindedness and Candor: You have to be willing to lay aside your assumptions and biases and accept criticism from yourself and possibly others who you involve in the process.
- Constructive Orientation: AAR’s aren’t about beating yourself up for making mistakes. Nor, for that matter, are they about inflating your ego because you did something particularly well. They are about building off of experiences in ways that will enhance your life going forward.
- Coherence: One of the reasons the four questions are so important is because the provide a structure for the process. The questions, along with the recommended time allocations for them, give you a simple, but effective framework for reflection. You should cap the questions off by always writing down what you have actually learned and what you will do as a result of having answered them.
- Collaboration: While we don’t generally think of reflection as involving the input of others, getting the perspectives of others can be an important factor in the “proactive” approach of an AAR often. This may mean discussions with others involved in the experience, or it may mean sharing details of the experience with a friend or mentor and getting their perspectives.
- Consistency: Finally, to achieve the highest impact, don’t think of an After Action Review as something that occurs only on special occasions or after major events. Garvin notes that the Army – unlike many other organizations – has been so successful with AAR’s because it has woven them into the everyday culture. Soldiers and commanders routinely break for quick AAR sessions in the midst of major projects or initiatives. As Garvin writes “Quick feedback led to quick implementation, sharply increasing the rate of learning.”
There you have it. Make After Action Reviews a regular part of your learning habits, and put yourself on the path to ninja status when it comes to effective, high-impact-reflection.
P.S. – If you want to go deeper on After Action Reviews you may want to get Garvin’s book Learning in Action.