Collective Impact #Toolbox: After Action Reviews

Collective Impact #Toolbox: After Action Reviews

Want to build a feedback culture? Use this fast, simple U.S. Army process to reflect, capture learning, and improve how your partnership works together over time.

The Collective Impact #ToolBox is a series of blogs featuring simple, practical tools that members of cross-sector partnerships can use to support their day to day work.

Consistent reflection, whether by individuals or teams, is an important ingredient for growth and improvement. Individual reflection rarely requires a meeting or a process. Many of us are constantly reflecting on our intentions, our results and how we can improve. It is often so natural, we don’t even realize we are doing it! It is much more difficult for groups to reflect effectively without dedicated time and structure. In groups, there are multiple voices and perspectives that must be channeled into actionable learning about what’s working, what isn’t, and why. Additionally, if a group has not already developed the trust and common understanding necessary for a feedback culture to thrive, reflection sessions can become wrought with defensiveness, accusations and nonconstructive criticism.

I was trained on a great tool for navigating challenging group dynamics during my time serving in the United States Army.

The U.S. Army is made up of teams that are called upon to navigate these group dynamics in particularly stressful and transitory environments. They must gel quickly, communicate well and consistently improve when the stakes are high. One of the most effective tools that the Army developed to support leaders to meet these challenges is the After Action Review (AAR). After every mission or training exercise, soldiers gather around a leader or designated facilitator. At least one person is selected to take notes. Someone is called upon to restate the mission and intent. Then the group collectively describes what actually happened. Next, the team surfaces opportunities for improvement, and highlights things that went well and should be sustained in the future. Once complete, the notes are either entered into a formal report and shared so others can benefit from the learning, or simply entered into a team AAR book so that next time a similar mission or exercise will be conducted, the learning can be easily referenced.

As both a member of the Living Cities staff and as an Army Reserve Officer, I have facilitated and participated in countless AARs. The great thing about AARs – they are made up of four simple questions. The questions can be productively answered in five minutes or in fifty minutes. They work for reflecting on complex initiatives as well as for simple exercises. The added structure helps teams get into a rhythm of giving feedback while keeping the focus on actionable learning instead of finger-pointing. For all of these reasons the frame has been adapted for use by the for-profit and non-profit sectors. It’s a great technique for cross-sector partnerships to employ in service of learning to work together differently.

Here are two excellent resources if you are interested in learning more about how to facilitate AARs well:

U.S. Army Leader’s Guide to After Action Reviews

The Army training curricula packed with 35 pages of no non-sense “how to” details so that every leader benefits from foundational knowledge of how to facilitate the AAR process.

Knowledge Sharing Toolkit’s Adapted AAR Guide

A simple, non-military adapted explanation with tips, examples, and links to other supports.


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