An After Action Review can be used for reviewing a project, program, or other initiative. The After Action Review has also been referred to with titles such as After-Action Debriefing, a Look Back, a Post Mortem, or a Hot Wash, among others. In the Agile community, some call it a Retrospective. The concept is known by many names because it provides a reflection by those involved to learn what happened so that we can improve future performance.
Purpose of an After Action Review Meeting
An After Action Review is NOT intended to critique, grade success, or failure. Rather, it is intended to identify weaknesses that need improvement and strengths that might be sustained.
The After Action Review provides a candid discussion of actual performance results compared to objectives. Hence, the required input and perspectives are provided by the engagement participants. They will provide their insight, observation, and questions that help reinforce strengths and identify and correct the deficiencies of the completed project or action.
In a learning culture, collaborative inquiry and reflection are highly valued. Therefore, the US Armed Forces approach has five basic guidelines that govern its After Action Reviews, namely:
Tips for an After Action Review Meeting
- Call it like you see it
- Discover the “ground truth”
- No sugar coating
- No thin or thick skins
- Take thorough notes
With an After Action Review, being open, candid, and frank is highly valued. Not many groups are capable of complete candor, but it should be encouraged and expected. Participants are asked to identify mistakes they made as well as observations about others. Any other use of the confidential discussions should be discouraged or prohibited, such as performance evaluations. Focus on what can be learned, not who can be blamed.
This workshop typical takes from a partial day to an entire week. It may include twenty to thirty people or more, but not necessarily everyone at once, as participation may be spread out over the course of the workshop.
Agenda for an After Action Review Meeting
Standard introduction with emphasis on the project objectives and expected impact of the project on the organizational holarchy, including key assumptions or constraints.
Results are compared to the SMART objectives. What worked and hampered are captured as input for later discussion. Be careful with scope creep immediately. Questions that may be out-of-bounds at this time include why certain actions were taken, how stakeholders reacted, why adjustments were made (or not), what assumptions developed, and other questions that need to be managed later.
Goals and Considerations
Results are compared to the fuzzy goals and other considerations. Again, be careful with scope creep. Questions about why certain actions were taken, how stakeholders reacted, why adjustments were made (or not), what assumptions developed, and other questions should be managed later.
What Worked & Hampered
Discussion about results (or lack thereof) always stimulates talk about options and conditions to be leveraged in subsequent projects.
- How stakeholders reacted
- What assumptions developed
- What worked and hampered
- Why certain actions were taken
- Why adjustments were made (or not)
- Other questions as appropriate.
Issues and Risks
Assess or build a risk management plan and other next steps or actions (eg, Guardian of Change) based on actual results.
Standard FAST review and wrap-up
Special Ground Rules for an After Action Review Meeting
This workshop can handle more than twenty people, with frequent use of break out groups. Do not hesitate to partition the workshop so that participants may come and go as required. You may need to loop back, cover material built earlier, and clarify or add to it. The approach is intended to help shift the culture from one where blame is ascribed to one where learning is prized, yet team members are willingly accountable.
Please conduct consistently after all significant projects, programs, and initiatives. Do NOT isolate “failed” or “stressed” projects only. Some ground rules and guidelines that have proven successful in past include:
- Do NOT judge success or failure of individuals (ie; judge performance, not the person)
- Focus on the objectives first
- Encourage participants to raise any and all potentially important issues and lessons
For learning organizations, it has been suggested that the following are critical to understanding successful After Action Reviews, namely:
- Some of the most valuable learning has developed from the most stressful situations
- Transform subjective comments and observations into objective learning by converting adjectives such as “quick” into SMART criteria (ie, Specific, Measurable, Adjustable, Relevant, and Time-Based) such as “less than 30 seconds.”
- Use facilitators who understand the importance of neutrality and do not lecture or preach
Effective use of After Action Reviews should support a mindset in organizations that are never satisfied with the status quo—where candid, honest, and open discussion evidences learning as part of the organizational culture.
Become Part of the Solution—Improve Your Facilitation and Methodology Skills
First of all, go to the Facilitation Training Store https://mgrush.com/shop/ to access our in-house resources such as annotated agendas, break timers and templates used in our FAST Professional Leadership, Facilitation, and Methodology Training.
Furthermore, the FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics of an effective facilitator and methodologist. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual. Attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership-training workshop offered around the world. See MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, 40 CDUs from IIBA, or 3.2 CEUs).
Finally, don’t forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. Change or Die provides detailed workshop agendas. It also includes numerous tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective.
We are daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.
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