Adopt after-action reviews to bring continuous improvement to your small business

The U.S. Army has long used after-action reviews to improve battlefield performance.

For decades, the U.S. Army has used after-action reviews to improve performance.

In our last post launch expert Michelle van Schouwen discussed how to use a managerial technique called the pre-mortem to identify potential problems before launching a new product or service. This brought to mind another highly useful tool I learned about some years ago from a client, Marilyn Darling, who is now with Fourth Quadrant Partners, LLC. When I met her in the early 1990s, Marilyn, an expert in emergent learning, was studying after-action reviews (AAR), a technique developed by the U.S. Army in the 1970s to encourage continuous learning and improvement.

The army uses AARs to extract lessons from one event or project and apply them to others. This involves conducting an active discussion centered around these key questions:

• What did we intend to accomplish (what was our strategy)?

• What did we do (how did we execute relative to the strategy)?

• Why did it happen that way (why was there a difference between strategy and execution)?

• What will we do to adapt our strategy or refine our execution for a better outcome OR how do we repeat our success?

This technique has been adopted by many large corporations, and would also be valuable in any small business. A Boston public relations agency I used to freelance for conducted AARs after events they managed for clients. For example, they had a contract to do a series of store openings for CVS/Pharmacy. After each opening, they would hold an AAR to discuss what had worked and what hadn’t. With the benefit of such learning, the store openings just got better and better.

I encourage you to Google “after-action review” to learn more about this process. But to start you off, here are three key points to remember:

1. Make sure to conduct a free and open discussion. The army uses the phrase “leave your rank at the door” to optimize learning from AARs. For an AAR to work, people need to be able to express their honest opinions without fear of offending the boss or anyone else in the room.

2. AARs are not about placing blame. In an article entitled “Learning in the Thick of It” that Marilyn Darling and two co-authors wrote for the Harvard Business Review, they said, “Corporate AARs are often convened around failed projects. The patient is pronounced dead, and everyone weighs in on the mistakes that contributed to his demise. The word “accountability” comes up a lot–generally it means ‘blame,’ which participants expend considerable energy trying to avoid. There is a sense of finality to these sessions. The team is putting a bad experience behind it.”

If this blame-game approach is how you conduct an AAR, you’re better off not holding such a discussion. You’ll do more damage than good. Instead, focus on the fact that this process is about helping the team improve. And don’t’ just hold AARs after something has gone wrong. Hold them after successful projects or events, too. Which brings us to the next point.

3. It’s as much about what DID work as it is about identifying what didn’t. It’s very easy with any form of post-mortem review to focus on what went wrong. But there is as much learning to be gained by discussing the things that did work and how you can replicate those and improve on them even more in the future. By including the positive as well as the negative, your employees will be more eager to participate. So focus as much attention on the end part of the last of the four questions cited above – “how do we repeat our success” – as you do on figuring out how the solve any problems.

I encourage you to read the entire Harvard Business Review article from Marilyn and her colleagues. It contains great advice on how to conduct AARs to gain maximum benefit from this valuable continuous learning and improvement tool.

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