Wednesday, May 6, 2009

AAR - Leaders prioritize learning

If I were to ask you what you learned from a recent leadership experience, the odds are you would think for a moment and provide an answer. It would be the response you thought up at that exact moment and it might have been a different answer yesterday and/or tomorrow.

Once in a while we are exposed to an idea or concept used in another leadership setting that has direct application to our current challenges. I was reminded of one the other day when reading Tom Magness’ Leader Business blog post “Take Charge (Part IV).” He referenced the military’s After Action Review (AAR) process. Simply put (I apologize to the military experts if I do not do it full justice), right when an important undertaking is complete the team should ask themselves three questions: 1) What did we plan to do? 2) What did we do? 3) What could we have done better? A few very key elements of the process are:

• Conduct the review within 15 minutes of the action (when the boots are still muddy)
• Document the three questions and the brainstorm answers
• Take no more than 15 minutes for the exercise, and
• Distribute the completed AAR to key stakeholders for future plan enhancements

While extremely simple, I have seen this process teach valuable lessons. It is a particularly useful mentoring tool when used as the final submittal for a less experienced teammate to share with a boss before ending an assignment.

Have you used the AAR process? Do you have another tool you have used in the past?


Loretta Donovan said...


AAR is an essential process that I use with my staff and include in leadership development programs. The shift to learning from experience rather than dodging the bullets of blame is amazing. For managers who have to keep it simple, I start them with a 3 minute AAR process that I learned at Columbia U.

Longman Chen said...

Hi John,

I agree that the AAR tool is very good for training the team member. But, as per my experience of working in the industrial, it is difficult to use, because first priority of the team leader, is to delivery the jobs and the jobs keep the team busy so people can not spend their time to do such a practice. After all, the team leader is not hired specifically as a teacher. Usually, I encourage the team leaders to be very invloved with everthing (I force people to do micro manangement) and so that the leader can physically show his members how to do the job properly, which trains people effectively. I name this "body show" as I feel that "just telling people how to do" is not good enough. What do you think?

Anna DeBattiste said...

John, here's a perspective from an organization similar to the military. My mountain rescue team uses AAR's (although we simply call them debriefs) after every training scenario and every mission. But with the missions in particular, we have found it useful to do the debrief in two parts. There is the after-mission debrief, when the boots are still muddy and our memories of the details are fresh. But emotions are often running high at this point, and we find that sometimes, particuarly if we have just saved someone's life, people are not as interested in hearing what we could do better as they are in hearing what we did right. So at the end of the month we conduct a debrief of all our missions for that period, with a little more detail around the learning points. I find that it is sometimes the same in the workplace. There is a time to celebrate accomplishments and a time to talk about areas for improvement, and sometimes they are not the same time. Your thoughts?

Larry Boyer said...

The AAR process certainly is valuable for a number of reasons as discussed, but we also shouldn't discount the value of letting the experience settle in a bit and gain some perspective. Does the amount of time required to asses depend some on the complexity of the task as well as the emotional impact of the experience? I wonder if anyone has used both immediate and delayed.

Winford E (Dutch) Holland said...

John ... I have used this process and it works ... Dutch

Daniel Raduta said...

I must admit not using very often this simple but incredibly useful principle. Yes, I would call it a principle, because I read about it in different flavors. Basically, it's about getting feedback while "it's hot". And I don't see people around me using it either. Why is that? Basically, I think very few managers (or teammates) tend to give operational issues most importance. So, the most important would be to think about managing aspects above all.

Leanne Hoagland-Smith said...

I use a similar process - KWL - when facilitating learning.

1. What do you know?
2. What do you want to know?
3. What have you learned?

The premise is the same - activate awareness and existing memories so that new knowledge can be more easily assimilated through the process of constructivism as identified by Piaget. Awareness is the first step in any learning process.

This process helps to transition the short term memory experience into long term memory therefore increase cognitive retention. Also within the process, emotional triggers are also activated by the second question. Reflection is the final outcome and again helps to solidify the experience.

Gabe Andrews said...

Hello John,

As a staff sergeant in the US Army I lead many AAR's after missions and training and have carried the practice into my corporate job. As a project manager I work to perform an in person AAR after large projects have completed. In the case where many members of the project team are not located in a single area I have performed informal AAR's via email and a word document. The word document I have used begins with the three questions you outlined above and several sub topics specific to the project. I ask each member to fill out the document and return to me only and then I compile all responses and disseminate the document to all. In this format I have found that individuals feel free to include their own insights without fear.

The only caution that I must state with a "live" AAR is as the leader of the session it is of utmost importance to stress that all comments are to not be judgmental. An AAR is not to find whom to place blame, but to discuss how to improve processes and actions in the future.

All in all every AAR has been well received and the outcome is always positive.

Felix P. Nater said...


There might be other tools put there but I live by the AAR. It is the process effective leaders of people use as part of team building. Essentially, it is designed to encorage discussion of the preceeding events in a non-
threatening setting without retribution. Every member of the team gets heard regardless of rank. Following the AAR leaders use the results to adjust future operational and training plans.

Quite frankly, your stating of the objectives of the AAR Process are commendable and not worthy of splitting hairs. Suffice to day that the most important part missed is that everyone speaks without retribution.

Since I had the honor and good fortune to serve my Country as an Army Reservist following Active Duty and worked as a Postal Inspector, I owe any leadership successes to my integration of the AAR Process in running task Force Operations and other Program Management initiatives.

They value of the AAR is measured in terms of the quality and quantity of the feedback in a mutually supportive setting where the rules are clear. No one gets blamed.

I hope this helps.

Felix P. Nater
Nater Associates, Ltd.

Brenna Comacchio said...

The AAR seems like a very valuable process, and it is very similar to a process that CoachingOurselves utilizes. CoachingOurselves is a management leadership and development program. During and at the end of its sessions, it asks the group to reflect on past experiences and share them with the group.

In the same way as the AAR, participants are forced to talk about their experiences, reflect on the impact, and then discuss with the group. As John put it, this process contributes to effectiveness and allows the members to share their insights in a safe space.

Francisco Ortega Campos said...

I like the process because it reviews performance from the perspective of the plan. I do not very much like the fact that its focus its solely on improvement points and neglects success. So I would change question 2 for: What did we do successfully? and I would add: Why? The reasons of our success are our strong points. Addressing also the positive provides a wider picture (not only focusing on failures) and further motivation for the team.

Ada Gonzalez said...

Reflecting in Action is one of the best ways to ensure Transformative Learning. I also use something very similar to AAR and to what Leanne mentions:
1-How did I contributed--positively and negatively . . . (to the project, or mission, or discussion)
2-Where expectations met? How? or Why not?
3-What more can be done for even better results and how?
4-What was the best of the experience?

If more presenters, trainers, and leaders used some variation of this "simple" tool, a lot more learning and innovation would happen. Thanks for bringing this up!

Loretta Donovan said...

Larry Boyer said...

Great blog! I especially enjoyed your "Melted Water Pipes" entry.

By all means go ahead and share what I've said. I'm not surprised you haven't seen other views around it. AAR is is a methodology and usually people apply methodologies "as is" and don't think much about what else can be learned by either modify the methodology or supplementing it.

Doing the AAR quicky gives you a very fresh set of results, plus memories of details *may* be more clear. I say "may" because the more emotionally charged the situation the more likely the details of the experience are going to be distorted. Depending on the circumstances and what kind of information you are looking for, doing an analysis right after the event, after some time has passed or both may be more useful.

You may be interested in a blog of mine that I'm just starting. You can find it at . Another blog you might be interested in is Abha Banerjee's blog at Abha is an excellent speaker on emotional intelligence.

If you're interested in personal/professional development you might be interested in subscribing to There are programs on a number of topics including some leadership video by Brian Tracy, Kevin Carrol, Darb Checketts, Don Hutson, Tony Alessandra & others.

If you want to follow me on Twitter I post links to interesting articles and videos I find on topics of leadership, management, personal development, etc. I'm LBoyer001.

Keep in touch. Feel free to write me anytime.


Daniel Gigante said...

I learned about and use a very similar tool to AAR. It is PDCA. PLAN your action.DO your Plan,CHECK your results. ADJUST.

PDCA should be utilized regularly for optimum results.

I pick this and other great leadership principles from the book Launching a Leadership Revolution. By Chris Brady and Orrin Woodward.

Edward Wade said...

We have used the AAR process in some instances but we haven't gained as much from it as we could/should. What I've seen is that we "may" conduct an AAR, if someone thinks about it(not institutionalized). When we conduct them, we tend to distribute the results to a limited audience and then "get back to work." I think the "getting back to work" attitude, prevalent in my world, is indicative of us not realizing the doing things like AARs is "part of" the work and the "lessons" from the AAR need to be shared broadly and discussed again(and again, and again) until we have "learned." We have a tendency to do a lot of "re-learning."
I have used the USAID guide for AARs as a resource.

Add to Technorati Favorites