After Action Reviews

An After Action Review is a facilitated discussion about a project or activity that allows those who were involved to review what happened, track progress, correct unintended effects and capture recommendations for the future. They can be formal meetings lasting half-a-day, or shorter sessions lasting half-an-hour.

Despite the name, After Action Reviews do not have to wait until the end of a piece of work; in fact they are most useful when they are carried out after key stages throughout a project so that the lessons can be applied immediately.

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How to do it

  • Hold the meeting as soon as possible so that memories are fresh and team members are still available.
  • Include all the key members of the team.
  • Appoint a facilitator to help to draw out answers and insights and to keep the meeting focused. This can be a member of the team, but ideally it will be someone not directly involved so that they can remain objective but nevertheless have a good understanding of the issues.
  • Set ground rules for the meeting, including: respect for others’ views, equality of participants, the need for openness and honesty, and an expectation that all should take part.
  • Revisit the objectives in order to establish a common understanding of the activity: What did we set out to achieve? What actually happened? Why were these differences?
  • Reflect on the strengths and weaknesses: What worked well? Why? What could have been improved? How?
  • Identify specific actions: What would you do differently next time? What two or three key lessons would you share with others?
  • A note-taker should be present to record the main points and the actions, but the focus should not be on producing a lengthy report which is filed away. A short list of key lessons for the future will be more memorable.

Pros

  • After Action Reviews can be held almost anywhere and do not require a lot of advance preparation.
  • A flexible approach can be taken, so the meeting can be formal or informal, longer or shorter, depending on the complexity of the activity being reviewed.
  • They help to build trust among members of the team.
  • They help to overcome a "blame culture" and a fear of making mistakes.

Cons

  • Skilled facilitation is required to ensure that all team members take part and contribute to the discussion.
  • The emphasis should be on the participants committing to specific actions, rather than on writing up a long report which will sit on a shelf and be forgotten.
  • This is not a performance evaluation but a learning event; care should be taken not to focus on a list of complaints, assign blame or critique individuals.

Resources

  • A meeting space large enough for all the members of the team
  • Flipcharts and pens to record the key points and actions

Top Tips

  • If time is limited, or participants are unwilling to open up, it may be helpful to distribute the questions in advance. The responses can be collated by the facilitator and shared on the day to stimulate discussion.
  • Write the questions on flipchart sheets before the meeting and stick these up around the room to focus participants’ minds. Comments can be written on the sheets throughout the review session.
  • Keep asking "why?" to draw out the reasons behind the strengths and weaknesses and "how?" to identify specific actionable recommendations.

Sources and Further Information

  • After Action Reviews were first developed by the US military. The Link opens in a new windowUSAID website has a detailed manual which includes checklists and planning documents.
  • Collison, C. & Parcell, G. (2004) Learning to Fly: practical knowledge management from leading and learning organizations Oxford: Capstone