Founder Friday

The Magic of After Action Reviews


So I'm a big fan of learning, right? But one of the biggest things that stops people from learning is not going back to review things after they've happened.

Sure, we can have great experiences, whether successes or failures, but if we just look forward and never take a moment to look back, then we're not going to get the most out of those experiences.

And that sucks, because you'll be destined to make the same mistakes over and over again. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (a movie I have never actually seen – I'm sorry).

So what's an After Action Review?

After Action Reviews (AARs), first introduced to me by our Board Member Susan Kish, are a structured de-briefing process after a project, event, or action for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it could be done better.

It was initially developed by the military, but it's become a popular tool within organizations for keeping track of knowledge, and as a way to build a culture of accountability and learning.

AARs happen during or immediately after a specific event, and consist of three sets of questions:

  1. What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Why were there differences?
  2. What worked? What didn't? Why?
  3. What would you do differently next time?

These sessions can take place either formally or informally, and are usually run by a facilitator.

It can also be helpful to have someone else take notes - you definitely want to have written documentation of your AARs (and learnings) and make them publicly available so that others on your team can also learn from your AARs.

And make sure you leave room for all three questions. I'd recommend blocking out about 25% of your time for the first question, 25% for the second, and 50% for the third.

The first question is intended to create a shared pool of understanding. You should cover things like:

  • What were the initial objectives of the project, event, or task
  • Were they achieved?

The second question is meant to generate conversation around what worked or didn't work. We start by asking about what worked well. Ways to ask this include:

  • What did you like?
  • What are things that would be worth repeating?

You should be constantly following up by asking "Why?" (see 5 Whys, which isn't totally necessary here, but is useful to know about).

Then you talk about what didn't work well. Again, keep asking "why?" to get to the real root of explanations and problems.

If you're in a group and people aren't opening up, you can go around and ask each person to say one thing that worked well and one thing that didn't, or you can have each person write down their answers on stickies and discuss afterwards in a group.

Finally, and probably most importantly, ask what you would do differently next time.

The goal here is to come up with a set of Specific Actionable Recommendations (SARs). Specific Actionable Recommendations are meant to be unambiguous and actionable ("Focus more on planning next time" is too vague).

What you want to come up with is a list of things that you can create follow up actions from.

What we do at One Month is run AARs after major projects and events and then keep track of them in a Google Doc.

We've got an AAR template that each facilitator copies and then fills in information at the top, keeping them all in a publicly accessible AAR folder that others can search through later.

How long should an AAR take?

AARs can be formal or informal. You can do 15 minutes or much longer. We tend to make them about an hour.

At the end of an AAR, remember to do a pass through your SARs and make sure they are actually specific and actionable. You may want to have one person go through and assign followup tasks and items to individuals during or after the meeting.

So there you have it, a useful tool that you can do by yourself or with a team. Don't worry about all the formality. Remember, have fun, and stay safe.

And don't contract SARs.


Mattan Griffel

Mattan Griffel

Mattan Griffel is the CEO & co-founder of One Month. Teacher at General Assembly. Studied Philosophy and Finance at NYU. Named to Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education. Featured in BusinessWeek, MIT Technology Review, Huffington Post, Mashable and The Next Web.