After Action Reviews

Consider for a moment what the Army and the other armed services do from a training and systems thinking point of view. They take thousands of young, untrained men and women and within a very short time, they are part of teams that learn, function and accomplish tremendously difficult tasks. At the same time real bonds of commitment to the mission and to each other are formed. What they are already doing in many ways is what corporations and government is struggling with. Consider one tool they use, The After Action Review.

Three simple questions are asked after training or events.

What happened?
What did we expect?
What can we learn from the gap?

All the participants in the training or exercise are included in this reflective exercise. Reflection leads to dialogue and this builds team commitment and most importantly and culture and environment of learning.

Integration of AAR’s or other reflective learning strategies help build a culture of learning over time. Four specific outcomes come from use of these.

1. Leadership by request and example-This helps leaders and managers to reflect and think deeply about issues and not opt for a quick fix solution.

2. Events seen as learning opportunities-To develop the abilities of all levels of leadership, day-to day events need to be seen as ‘learning opportunities.’ Past and present events are seen in the context of ‘what can be learned.’ This allows for the team to address future issues in this context.

3. Grassroots exposure to AAR’s-Exposing reflecting learning to the grassroots level creates a safe environment for learning. It is not a mandate and prefection is not insisted upon. Everyone can learn and develop.

4. A cadres of trained facilitators emerge-All levels of the organization learn how to facilitate reflective learning and thus it is reinforced at all levels as a norm for the organization. (2)

“Modern combat is complex and demanding. To fight and win, we must train our soldiers during peacetime to successfully execute their wartime missions. We must use every training opportunity to improve soldier, leader, and unit task performance. To improve their individual and collective-task performances to meet or exceed the Army standard,
soldiers and leaders must know and understand what happened or did not happen during every training event. After-action reviews (AARs) help provide soldiers and units feedback on mission and task performances in training and in combat. After-action reviews identify how to correct deficiencies, sustain strengths, and focus on performance of specific mission essential tasks list (METL) training objectives.”

Informal Reviews

“Leaders usually conduct informal AARs for soldier and small-unit training at platoon when resources for formal AARs, including time, are unavailable. Informal AARs use the standard AAR format.

Leaders may use informal AARs as on-the-spot coaching tools while reviewing soldier and unit performances during training. For example, after destroying an enemy observation post (OP) during a movement to contact, a squad leader could conduct an informal AAR to make corrections and reinforce strengths. Using nothing more than
pinecones to represent squad members, he and his soldiers could discuss the contact from start to finish. The squad could quickly–

• Evaluate their performance against the Army standard (or unit standard if there is no published Army standard).
• Identify their strengths and weaknesses.
• Decide how to improve their performance when training continues.

Informal AARs provide immediate feedback to soldiers, leaders, and units during training. Ideas and solutions the leader gathers during informal AARs can be immediately put to use as the unit continues its training. Also, during lower echelon informal AARs, leaders often collect teaching points and trends they can use as discussion points during higher echelon formal AARs. Informal AARs maximize training value because all unit members are actively involved. They learn what to do, how to do it better, and the importance of the roles they play in unit-task accomplishment. They then know how to execute the task to standard. The most significant difference between formal AARs and informal AARs is that informal AARs require fewer training resources and few, if any, training aids. Although informal AARs may be part of the unit evaluation plan, they are more commonly conducted when the leader or OC feels the unit would benefit. Providing immediate feedback while the training is still fresh in soldiers’ minds is a significant strength of informal AARs.” (1)

(1) A Leader’s Guide to After Action Reviews-The Department of the Army
(2) The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge.

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