After-Action Review: Why the AAR Is a Critical Tool for Business Leaders

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Lack of institutional memory serves as both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of every new venture. Moreover, this information gap leaves startup businesses and company reboots alike twisting in the wind and learning every lesson the hard way: through direct failure or near disaster. Accordingly, management needs to hold an after-action review to immunize the company against potential disasters whenever projects and activities end with sighs of relief or statements such as, "I can't believe that worked!"

An after-action review details the objectives of a project or exercise, including a description of the purpose of the event and a review of the decision-making process employed before, during and after the effort. Additionally, the resulting report examines the effects of any deviations from the original plan.

Purpose of an After-Action Review

When a business adheres to a hierarchical management structure, after-action reviews provide a glimpse inside the chain of command. Regular debriefings provide members of the management succession team with valuable insights on how and why the company vision, mission statement and daily activities converge to create an employer-of-choice workplace that provides optimal service in every situation.

In companies with nonhierarchical management structures, after-action reviews demonstrate the need for impromptu hierarchies to spring into action during a crisis. Employees with similar levels of authority might have to order fellow employees to evacuate the building during a fire, for example, or staff members with training in CPR or automated defibrillator use may have to order untrained staff to step aside so that an affected employee receives the appropriate and timely assistance to ensure that the chain of survival remains unbroken.

A Historical After-Action Review Example

Julius Caesar's book "The Gallic Wars" serves as an excellent historical after-action review example. It details the actions, intentions and results of his efforts to bring the lands to the west and north of the Roman Empire to heel.

Before his triumphant return to Rome, Julius recognized that without the support of the common people, known as plebeians, he would find himself accused as an enemy of the state. Consequently, Julius examined every factor leading to the need for the invasion and takeover of each section of Gaul.

Efficient After-Action Review Format

Keep the after-action review format simple. Adhere to the four-step format provided in the United States Army Study Guide for the sake of interagency consistency. Unless the report covers only proprietary information for the business and does not address any security matters, using a single format ensures that input from other agencies remains consistent. The definitions of terms, deployment of personnel and the descriptions of events do not result in omissions or contradictions.

Four After-Action Review Steps

Every debriefing should include the following four after-action review steps:

  1. Planning
  2. Preparation
  3. Conduct
  4. Follow up 

Every after-action review begins during the planning phase, before the event takes place. First, the planning team must create specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and tangible objectives for the event. For example, the objectives for a midsummer blood donation push might read as follows:

  1. All personnel will log in to the automated dialer system by 1 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25.

  2. Every outreach coordinator must set four confirmed appointments per hour.

  3. The confirmation team will send a reminder text 24 hours before each donor's appointment time.

  4. The outreach coordination team will thank every donor for keeping the appointment within 24 hours of the most recent donation.

In the preparation phase, move materials and staff into position. Prompt observers to provide feedback on their positions and make every necessary adjustment to ensure that all parties know when the event will begin and what sequence of actions they must take once that occurs.

Preventing Public Disorder

The preparation phase should always include coordination with law enforcement, first responders and firefighters to prevent the diversion of vital resources from real emergencies and to quell the possibility of panic if the general public fails to recognize the difference between a drill and a genuine threat to public safety.

Radio announcements and newspaper advertisements, memos and door hangers all help inform the public that a safety drill will take place. Such announcements should include the date, time and location of the event and suggestions for alternate routes to avoid causing traffic snarls. Always announce any school-related drills well in advance, especially active-shooter lockdowns. All such drills should already have built-in contingencies for transportation glitches and family reunifications.

By keeping the general public in the loop, safety drills, simulations and training exercises will not cause panic and result in unexpected negative consequences such as "friendly-fire" injuries or chain-reaction vehicular pileups. Remember that any such unintended responses must always find their way into every well-written after-action report, so always include bystander input in every review you conduct.

Conduct and Record the Event

Select several designated observers or trainers to record the event from multiple points of reference and perspective. For example, in a disaster response simulation, every safety force and government agency provides at least one observer. Each observer must have a direct line of sight to each participant, or a second observer must staff that blind spot. The designated observers record the event via notes and photos, drawings and live stream to minimize any feedback bias.

Always assign as many personnel to attend each drill as you can muster. Participation in live events provides insights that lecture-based training cannot replace. Performing under duress in a live event often reveals that key personnel cannot perform as requested due to unspoken fears and inadequacies. These employees must move into other roles long before a real-life event results in tragedy.

Follow Up With All Participants Off-Site or On-Site

Whether any staff or agent participated remotely or in person, every piece of information you can wring from support personnel must enter the event record, no matter how seemingly trivial. Recording the locked or unlocked status of emergency exits might prevent injury or death during a fire or active shooter event, for example.

Querying remote staff might reveal that inbound customer service continued uninterrupted, reducing losses and reassuring staff and family members that management had the situation under control with assistance from local first responders. Remote staff also kept employees from other shifts updated regarding any delayed start times or early dismissals.

After-Action Review Definition

A workable after-action review definition describes a debriefing session that dissects the planning, execution, operational decisions and individual actions of all parties involved in a training exercise or daily procedure performed by the armed services, government agencies, businesses and private citizens.

Any situation that affects operational effectiveness, morale, well-being or quality of life should trigger an after-action review and a corresponding after-action report.

The Most Important Reason to Write an AAR

After-action reports provide a record of the actions and decisions that prompted responses from employees, bystanders and government agents. The reflection required to write the report ensures that management does not make knee-jerk executive decisions but instead takes carefully calculated actions designed to benefit all stakeholders in the company and the community.

A thorough after-action report provides a blueprint for the next crisis and reassures staff and bystanders, managers and first responders that the next occurrence of a similar issue will result in fewer injuries, reduced material losses and increased confidence in taking direct action. New staff members learn the chain of command and the chain of the best responses, while experienced staff and senior management help identify the choke points and decision-tree breakdowns that might eventually lead to tragedy if not addressed.