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Use an After-Action Review for debriefing a project, program, or other initiatives. An After-Action Review may also be called an 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 provides a reflection by those involved to learn what happened so that we can improve future performance.

Purpose of an After-Action Review Meeting,aka Hot Wash or Look Back or Retrospective

An After-Action Review (frequently called a Hot Wash) is NOT intended to critique, grade success, or failure. Rather, it identifies weaknesses that need improvement and strengths that might be sustained.

An After-Action Review answers four “learning culture” questions:

  1. (Purpose) What was supposed to happen?
  2. (Results) What did happen?
  3. (Causes) What caused the difference?
  4. (Implications) What can we learn from this?

The After-Action Review provides a candid discussion of actual performance results compared to objectives. Hence, the engagement participants contribute their input and perspective. They provide their insight, observation, and questions that help reinforce strengths and identify and correct the deficiencies of the completed project or action.

Learning cultures highly value collaborative inquiry and reflection. U.S. Armed Forces use After-Action Reviews extensively, using a variety of means to collect hard, verifiable data to assess performance. The U.S. Army refers to the evidence as “ground truths.”

Participants identify mistakes they made as well as mistakes made by others. They prohibit any other use of the candid discussions, including performance reviews.

Focus on WHAT can be learned, not WHO can be blamed.

The U.S. Army’s approach may use five basic guidelines that govern its After-Action Reviews, namely:

Guidelines for an After-Action Review Event, Meeting, or Workshop 

  1. Call it like you see it
  2. Discover the “ground truth”
  3. No sugar coating
    An After Action Review Focuses on Listening

    After Action Review Focuses on Listening

  4. No thin or thick skins
  5. Take thorough notes

After-Action Reviews value open, candor, and frankness. Not many groups open up and provide complete candor, but you should encourage full disclosure. Participants identify mistakes they made as well as observations about others. Discourage or prohibit any other use of confidential discussions, such as supporting performance evaluations.

An After-Action Review workshop typically takes from a partial day to an entire week. It may include twenty to thirty people or more, but not necessarily everyone at once. Hence, participation varies over the course of the workshop.

Agenda for an After-Action Review Event, Meeting, or Workshop

Begin with the MG RUSH introduction and emphasize the project objectives and expected impact of the project on the organizational holarchy. Carefully articulate and codify key assumptions or constraints.

  • Success Objectives

Results are compared to the SMART objectives. Items that worked or hampered provide 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

Compare the project results to the fuzzy goals and other considerations. Again, be careful with scope creep. Manage other questions later such as why certain actions were taken, how stakeholders reacted, why adjustments occurred (or not), and what assumptions developed.

  • What Worked & Hampered

Results-focused discussion focused (or lack thereof) stimulates talk about options and conditions to leverage in future projects.

    • How stakeholders reacted
    • What assumptions developed
    • What worked and hampered
    • Why certain actions took priority
    • What adjustments worked (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.

Special Ground Rules for an After-Action Review Event, Meeting, or Workshop

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 shifts the culture from one where blame is ascribed to one where learning is prized, yet team members willingly remain accountable.

Conduct After-Action Reviews consistently after all significant projects, programs, and initiatives. Therefore, do NOT isolate “failed” or “stressed” projects only. Some ground rules and guidelines that have proven successful in the 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

The following also support cultural growth, post After-Action Reviews, namely:

  • Some of the most valuable learning derives 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
  • Teach the team to teach itself

Therefore, effective use of After-Action Reviews supports 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. In conclusion, learning is everyone’s responsibility and it begins with hard data used to analyze actual results.


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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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  1. From: Jackie Is it possible you mean ‘no THIN skins’?

    Hi Jackie,

    Thank-you for your thoughtful observation. Oddly, we meant the thick skin as in someone impervious or resistant as opposed to someone thin-skinned and perhaps overly sensitive. We should have captured both, and have done so with our recent edit.

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