The after action review, or AAR, was first created by the U.S. Army in the 1970s as an on-the-spot learning tool to make fast corrections and improvements to a group’s direction and activity. Seeing the potential of such a tool, the business world adopted the AAR and applied it to a range of applications.
The AAR reflects the kind of process that all of us apply to a situation, often unconsciously, to analyze what happened and what could have been done differently. This is a formalized version of that kind of assessment conducted as a team, not led by the manager. It is designed to be quick, with the outcome focused on just one or two specific learnings or actions that can be put into play for immediate improvement.
The AAR is a short session, 30 or 40 minutes, and consists of four questions:
- What was supposed to happen?
- What actually happened?
- What were the differences and why did they occur?
- What changes or actions can we take now?
Meant to be asked and answered as a team, these deceptively simple questions require consensus from the group. A lot of the AAR’s value, in fact, resides in the conversation that moves members to consensus.
Let’s look at each in a bit more detail.
1. What Was Supposed to Happen?
It may be easy to reach consensus on the answer to this first question. In many cases, there is an already defined goal or desired outcome, like hitting a particular number of sales or completing a task by a specific time.
2. What Actually Happened?
Spend most of the session time on this question, and the answers to the next two questions will be easy. The discussion here goes beyond “this didn’t happen” or “we exceeded the target” (this isn’t just about what didn’t work!). Take a narrative approach and fill in the details. Dig deeper behind the result by noting the things that happened that led to the outcome. While avoiding blame is important, you do want to identify shortfalls or mistakes.
3. What Were the Differences and Why Did They Occur?
The answers to this question may easily derive from the question 2 discussion. Identify where events or actions led to the actual outcome.
4. What Actions Can We Take Now?
Focus on one or two changes the team can make immediately because of what you’ve learned in the session. Avoid the temptation to make a long list or to define big, sweeping things. Go for small changes that can be put into play right away.
For Best Results, Embed the AAR into Team Culture
Any part of an enterprise can make good use of the AAR. When it is an integral part of team operations, it can lead to significant results over time. For example, it can help improve processes, build trust and collaboration in the team, and lead to higher-quality output. Schedule AARs when it makes sense—for example, weekly or when a milestone has been reached—and keep records of each session.