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Jake Mazulewicz


How You Can Build Trust and Expertise With After-Action Reviews

Asking the right questions

Published: Tuesday, February 7, 2023 - 13:03

Do you lead your team to learn primarily from successes, or from failures? Many leaders argue that their teams are just too busy to spend time discussing why a successful project went well. They just wrap up fast, then dive into the next project. So, the unspoken insights and unwritten lessons learned from that project are rarely shared or discussed. Often, they’re just forgotten in the frenzy of working project after project.

But would you hire an engineer to build you a bridge if all that engineer ever studied was how bridges collapse? Would you hire a recruiter to find you a job if all that recruiter ever studied was how people get fired?

The best leaders help their teams learn regularly from their successes, not just occasionally from their failures. But learning from success happens automatically, doesn’t it? Not necessarily.

After-Action Review (AAR)

Soldiers perform complex, dynamic, often dangerous missions. And they want to learn as much as they can from each one. In the 1980s, leaders in the U.S. Army realized they needed a practical way to help soldiers share the unspoken insights and unwritten lessons they learned from their missions. They realized that sharing tribal knowledge and applying tacit skill were key to winning wars. And since it was the Army, they developed a process—a nonpunitive, semistructured, post-job team debrief called an After-Action Review (AAR).

These reviews have proven so effective that every branch of the military now uses them. And for some units, such as flight crews and special operations forces, AARs are almost a religion. They’ve been called, “one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised.”

The process of leading a basic AAR is simple. Soon after your team completes a project, gather them in a private space for about 30 minutes, and ask these four questions:

1. What did we set out to do?
2. What did we actually do?
3. How did it turn out the way it did?
4. What will we do differently next time?

Why use these questions?

Have you ever had a discussion degenerate into a fact-free war of opinions? That’s the fate you’ll suffer if you start a debrief by asking for opinions. True, questions three and four are subjective and do indeed ask for opinions. But notice that questions one and two are much more fact-based. It may seem silly to ask, “What did we intend to do in this job?” However, different people can have different goals for the same job. The accountant on your team may have intended to maximize revenue. The safety specialist on your team may have intended to reduce the risk of injuries. The team leader may have wanted to finish the job ahead of schedule and under budget. So always start your AAR by getting facts with the first two questions before getting opinions with the last two questions.

“What went well and what went badly?” may seem like a great question for a debrief. After all, it cuts straight to the point, right? Here’s the problem: This question nudges us to discuss blame, not improvements. And blame stops learning in its tracks. Look at the four AAR questions. There’s no hint of fault, failure, or blame in any of them; that’s intentional. The AAR focuses on learning—not blame. Make sure you keep that focus in every AAR you lead.

Soldiers are fond of sayings like, “No mission plan ever survives contact with reality,” or “The planning is more valuable than the plan.” And in reality, the percentage of complex missions that go exactly according to plan is nearly zero. Soldiers and other experts in complex, dynamic systems know that in any given job there’s always a gap between what we plan to do and what we actually do. Notice how question 1 asks about the plan. Some call this “work as imagined.” Question 2 asks about the actual job. Some call this “work as done.” When you lead your AARs, use those first two questions to explore this critical gap—but don’t eliminate it.

Three common mistakes and how to avoid them

1. Successes vs. failures

Some leaders do AARs only for accidents or errors. If you do that, your team will quickly associate AARs with failure. And they’ll give short, vague answers to get it over with as quickly as possible. So, conduct about 80 percent or more of your AARs for successful projects. That way, your team will learn to trust the process and value the results.

2. Now vs. later

Unspoken insights and lessons learned are the most valuable things a team can discuss in an AAR. Those unspoken ideas have a half-life of hours or less. If you wait a day or more to lead your AAR, much of the priceless, unspoken wisdom will already have been lost, perhaps forever. So, lead the AAR as soon as the project wraps.

3. Leader vs. facilitator

Most leaders like to answer questions. Usually that’s a good thing—but not in an AAR. If you give in to the temptation to answer the questions, you’ll shut your team down until the only person talking is you. So, in an AAR, remember that the leader is the person who speaks the least. Choose your AAR leaders accordingly.


About The Author

Jake Mazulewicz’s picture

Jake Mazulewicz

Jake Mazulewicz shows leaders in high-hazard industries why errors are signals, not failures, and how to address the deeper problem so everyone can work more reliably and safely. A keynote speaker and advisor all across North America, he has a decade of experience in safety for electric utilities and has served as a firefighter, an EMT, and a paratrooper.