Learning from Mistakes: Use the 4-Step After Action Review for Results

Learning from Mistakes: Use the 4-Step After Action Review for Results

By Jill Vitiello

Mistakes happen. In spite of our best efforts, human beings are not perfect. Leaders who want to build high-performing teams focus on creating a culture where errors are examined without judgment and learning is shared quickly to prevent problems from recurring.

One of the best ways to operationalize learning from mistakes is to conduct an After Action Review. This process, developed by the U.S. military decades ago, is a methodical approach to analyzing why things went wrong, fixing the situation, and ensuring the same mistake isn’t made twice.

“By creating tight feedback cycles between thinking and action, AARs build an organization’s ability to succeed in a variety of conditions,” states an article in Harvard Business Review.

For years, we’ve been helping our clients conduct and communicate about After Action Reviews. We’ve seen the benefit of taking the time to extract the learning and share it throughout the organization. To modernize the experience for today’s workforce, we balance the seriousness of the exercise with a solid understanding of human nature.

For example, we’ve learned that receiving feedback in “neutral” helps people be courageous enough to share all the details no matter how embarrassing or upsetting they may be. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to shoot the messenger. For a productive conversation, don’t respond to any news with disgust or excitement. Simply thank your colleague for bringing information to the group and move on.

To avoid a punitive aspect to the AAR, operate with empathy. That doesn’t mean expressing pity; it means acknowledging your own biases and setting them aside so you can hear and consider other perspectives. Experts say you can disagree with and even dislike an individual and still be capable of understanding what they are thinking and feeling if you are empathetic.

The purpose of the AAR is to identify facts and determine a go-forward strategy. It is not intended to point blame at a hapless co-worker. Listening in neutral and operating with empathy sets a business-like tone for the proceedings and alleviates the mistrust and fear that people bring by default into a meeting that might be fraught with tension.

The structure of an AAR is simple. Invite members of the team involved in or having insight into an incident and ask them to answer four questions:

  1. What was expected to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What caused the difference between the two?
  4. What can be done to avoid the issue from here on?

Email the questions in advance to AAR participants to allow them time to think about their responses before the meeting. Set the meeting for 60-90 minutes. Facilitate an open dialog, drawing out introverts and quelling grandstanders. Aggregate and summarize the various answers to each question; then note them as bullet points. A best practice is to draft a document during the meeting that captures the responses.

Talking frankly about a mistake doesn’t fix it. Identifying the lesson doesn’t guarantee the team has learned it. What’s required for genuine improvement is behavior change.

The AAR generates information the team needs to take decisive action. Armed with the same set of facts, you can determine a solution to the problem, get started on making reparations, and identify breakdowns in processes that need to be corrected.

Conducting AARs on a regular basis provides your team with a framework for giving and receiving critical feedback in a timely way. It provides a safe path forward when co-workers make mistakes. And, it creates an atmosphere for learning, growth and continuous improvement.

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