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An After-Action Review (AAR), sometimes referred to as a project post-mortem, is a review of past performance to glean lessons that can be applied to future situations. Ideally, those learnings are then implemented within the organization as part of a continuous improvement effort. Ineffective AARs devolve into blame circles instead of being future oriented, focus on individuals’ poor performance, or attribute any negative outcomes to things outside of their control.
A client recently concluded a development project and one of the managers was looking to perform an AAR. On this project, everything was going smoothly and they were on the verge of getting their approvals when two things got in the way. First, they were assigned a new city planner, someone unfamiliar with their project. At the same time, the municipality changed some safety protocols which affected the initial permit application. In retrospect, it’s easy to say, “There’s nothing we could have done. We had no control over the reassignment or the policy changes. Who could have predicted it?”
The problem with this kind of thinking is it destroys the learning opportunity. It’s true that they couldn’t have predicted that particular planner would get reassigned at that particular time, but it’s equally true that they could’ve predicted that, at some point, some planners are going to get reassigned when in the middle of permitting. The orientation toward the AAR should consider the 20/20 value of hindsight. “No, we couldn’t predict it, but next time this happens, what is our process for getting the new planner up to speed as quickly as possible? What is the meeting agenda, what questions should we ask them, what additional information packages or executive summaries should we provide to make the transition better? Even if we did things 97.3% right last time, knowing what we know now, what was the other 2.7% and how can we improve in that area?”
Send the agenda for the AAR well in advance and ask people to come with written notes on their thoughts. The meeting ideally has six people or fewer (more than that and people become observers instead of participants) and attendance should be optional. If they don’t feel they have something to contribute, they shouldn’t come. There should be an action log to capture how the organization will embed the learning (and who will do it, and by when) and a parking lot to capture important ideas that don’t quite fit in this conversation but should be carried over to a different strategic meeting. The meeting should have a chair or facilitator to keep the discussion moving, ensure all voices are heard, and maintain the action log and parking lot. The leader of the meeting encourages healthy debate, keeps people future focused, and makes decisions.
Everyone – even you, even me – faces adversity and makes mistakes. The annals of business literature are riddled with “fail fast and often” stories. Failure has been glorified by many a star-CEO, particularly after they have succeeded. The piece that is underrated, however, is the learning that comes from mistakes. No matter how small or how large, every project should teach us something to improve the next project. Not just teach the lesson but implement the systems that will prevent the learning from being lost. The AAR agenda is easy, but the orientation toward the discussion and the actions that come after are what determines its success.
Next time you hear someone on your team say, “It was tough, but we learned a lot,” make sure you ask them what they learned and how they will mitigate the risk in the future. If they have trouble answering, it’s time to book an AAR.
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