At the end of an action cycle, there is a window of opportunity to learn how to improve next time.

Some people never learn. That is also true of some teams and organizations. All too often, dysfunctional group dynamics, people performance problems, and/or poor planning processes keep repeating themselves.

A prime example of this type of loony looping pattern led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest marine oil spill in history. It came to a head on April 20, 2010, when the oil rig exploded, killing 11 people. Millions of gallons of crude oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next two months, every attempt to stop the spill failed.

Finally, after extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats, the U.S. government pulled together an all-star group of experts to find a solution.

My client at the time ─ Wild Well Control ─ was a key member of that all-star group.

In mid-September, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen declared that the well was “effectively dead” after spilling roughly five million barrels of oil.

Deep Water Horizon After Action Review

On September 28, I began a two-day strategic planning session with the leaders of Wild Well Control. Since taming a wild well 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the sea had never been done before, there were important lessons to be learned. So, we conducted and After Action Review.

The AAR is somewhat like a “chalk talk” in sports, where players and coaches gather around a blackboard shortly after a game to discuss the team’s performance. It includes all the participants.

I have found the AAR is the simplest, quickest, and most effective method to drive performance learning.

Most importantly, the AAR creates a state of mind where people are assessing themselves and their group with a singular focus on how they can improve.

The AAR is designed to answer five key questions about an action cycle.

There are several reasons why the AAR is so effective:

  • It focuses sharply on the tasks and goals that you aimed to accomplish.
  • It uncovers why things happened and what was learned (rather than evaluating actions through a black and white lens of “success or failure”).
  • It encourages broad participation. When all action cycle participants are engaged, more specifics are recalled, and more are lessons learned

Tips for Effective AARs

  • Make AARs a habit (monthly for teams).
  • Utilize objective data whenever possible.
  • Establish clear ground rules:
    • Encourage candor and openness
    • Focus on things that can be fixed
    • Keep all discussions confidential
  • Engage all participants in a discovery dialogue (draw them out if necessary).
  • Probe for underlying cause-and-effect relationships.

A Final Thought

The AAR is about learning how to improve individual and group performance. IT is effective because everyone is required to stop and think about what happened, why it happened, what was learned, and what to do to improve in the next action cycle.

Few groups do this in a disciplined way. Those that do will improve while they move.


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