[Combat] After Action Reviews Are For Everyone

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Dear Brendan,

Let’s discuss the importance of conducting After Action Reviews (AARs) as they apply not only to the military but to the business community and family men.

We live in a very competitive world and global economy.  It’s critical that we learn quickly and be able to adjust fire accordingly.  If not, the competition will pass you by and it can be difficult if not impossible to catch up. 

You’ve asked me before how it is that special operations forces (SOF) or special mission units (SMU) are so much more effective and efficient across the board compared to our conventional military.  Well there are many factors and variables to explain this.  First is how operators are selected, and trained to perform at the highest levels.  Second is that most of these types of guys learn fast and think fast.  Hey speed kills on the battlefield and is not just a metaphor like it is in sports.  Because here we literally bury second place.  This is why the AAR is such a great learning tool.  If your business, family or team does not currently conduct AAR’s, I highly suggest you start doing so. 

The AAR is a real-time, team learning tool.  Sometimes referred to as a hot wash or de-brief in the civilian world, AAR is the common military term used across all services.  The AAR allows you to quickly and efficiently analyze events that just happened, to learn from them, and capture these lessons learned so they can be implemented as your business or team moves forward.

From my experience, SOF uses AAR’s more effectively than most do across the military or private sector.  The good news is you can adopt SOF AAR methods to your own business or team and increase your ability to operate more effectively and efficiently across the board. 

The AAR process is not complex.  As you know, I’m all for KISS – (Keep It Simple & Short).  I’ll give you the lay down real quick and you should be able to pick it up and run with it in a way that you can apply it to your own life, business or team.  In short you should conduct an AAR after every training evolution, combat mission, or various other types of operations.  For a SOF team you pull together all your operators, support staff, officers/leadership and review what just went down.  You should involve the entire team or unit.  Do not make the mistake that many do and leave others out that played a role.  Remember everyone has eyes and ears, so everyone is a collector. Our goal is to get better and capture these lessons learned.   

Typically, the unit or team leader runs the AAR.  There should be a note taker, who’s sole purpose is to capture everything covered.  Trust me when I say there is always something we can learn from and take away from an AAR.  

The senior leader will often times kick off the AAR by asking four main questions. 

1.)   What just happened? – This first question helps to lay down the overall event from various perspectives.  It is a run-down of basically all key events from start to finish.  This should be laid out from various teammates’ from across the ranks.  I don’t care if you’re a General, CEO, Private, or the Janitor, and this helps to set the tone for the rest of the AAR.

2.)   What went right?  It’s always good to start with the positives and lead with your strengths.  This question kicks things off by highlighting strengths of the mission/activity.  People are more likely to speak at ease about what went right and this helps to facilitate all team members to participate openly in the AAR.  Now you start to formulate a baseline to build on throughout the AAR process.

3.)   What went wrong? – Now this can be where the once free flowing discussions start to slow down.  It can be hard for some to speak freely about negatives, but it’s a very important part of the process.  Encourage all teammates to take an active role in identifying what went sideways and wasn’t done well or to the standard we expect to execute and operate.  Now it’s key that the leader is able to manage this discussion so that it is honest, transparent, stays professional and doesn’t end up becoming a bitch session or a team of guys pointing fingers.  With Type A personalities heavy in this community there are going to be disagreements, passionately held points of view, and that’s okay so long as it remains professional.  In fact, I’d encourage it. This is how we get better as men and as a team.

4.)   What should we do differently? – This could be the most important question to ask during the AAR.  The purpose is to identify what needs to be done in order to improve the individual operator and the overall team’s performance to include organizational support elements. Takeaways from this could be taking a hard look at training, rehearsals, resources, etc.  This type of information can be pure gold and you want to capture it. Our hard lessons learned are key to future successes.  But remember you must go through the other questions first to arrive at the solutions that will help you improve. One benefit of working in a small business or SOF team is you can integrate relevant changes in real-time.  Whereas with big business or Big Green Army you have stove-piped processes that greatly slow everything down. Flat organizations are far more agile and have the ability to react in real time.  Keep in mind that the AAR is simply a process that helps us improve as men, teammates, business owners and family men.    

There are some other SOF and Intel Community practices that separate their AAR process from the rest, but that’s for another day. For now, I’ll leave you with the following take aways that I believe will help you run effective AARs.

·       Nobody should be exempt from the AAR.  The AAR is a priority and should be mandatory for all involved to attend.  The team benefits from this.  Successful teams do not miss AARs.  There seems to be a tendency for many people to make excuses and not attend and this is where you should hold to a standard.  I’m not interested in excuses; I’m interested in results.  Or you will notice that some businesses will send a couple reps or token people to attend and the leaders or key players will be no shows.  Again, the AAR involves everyone, to include leaders.  No one is too special to skip out because they have a special title or rank.  And if you’re a leader, you need to set the tone from the get go and enforce this across the board.

·       Let everyone have a voice.  The tendency is for some leaders to dominate the discussion during the AAR.  Don’t be that guy and don’t allow other so called leaders to run off at the mouth or silence others from speaking up.  It’s about a bottom-up approach to get the most out of everyone involved and make the AAR value added.  Your job as a leader here is to get others actively involved and you’ll be demonstrating a level of empathy needed to get your people and those around you in the AAR to buy into the learning effort, and more importantly, the steps needed to make real improvements where they count.  This takes true leadership, discipline and thick skin.  Simply put, you call on everyone in the AAR as everyone has something to add and that something could be pure gold. 

·       Take the lessons learned and put them into place ASAP.  I’m sure we have all seen leaders run a great AAR or meeting where everyone contributes and some outstanding lessons are learned.  And then nothing…  I mean nothing is even written down. People go back to their desks or offices and not a damn thing is integrated or actioned on to improve performance.  So at the end of the day, it’s all a waste of time if leaders don’t incorporate the lessons learned and take a ways from the AAR in a timely manner.

This is why having true leaders is key.  We should retain these hard lessons learned from the AAR and more importantly, ensure they are integrated into processes and follow-on actions.  Get the lessons learned pushed out and implemented.  Share the information across your organization.  This is how we all learn and get better as men across the board for the teams we lead. 

One last thought and I’ll wrap this up.  Regardless of your profession, a well-executed AAR can make all the difference in how your organization learns, adapts and wins in life and business.  For the business professionals in our AM community, please try these AAR tips after your next business seminar or after you pitch a client.  We welcome your thoughts and feedback. 

“Business is a combination of war and sport.”

-Andre Maurois

See you on the high ground…

Your Friend,

-Travis