In 2005, Harvard Business Review published "Learning in the Thick of It" (Darling, et al). This article looked at After-Action Reviews, the Army's version of lessons learned. The found that instead of the typical post-mortem report generation that most companies slog through, the U.S. Army's Opposing Force had developed a dynamic, cyclical process that generated genuine learning and improved results.
If you want to read the article yourself (and I highly recommend that you do), the citation is located at the bottom of this post. For those who don't, I offer a brief summary of highlights from the article.
- Despite their name, After-Action Reviews (AAR) do not begin after a task is completed. Instead, they begin during the planning phase. Before any action is taken, the senior leader develops operational orders. These orders have four parts: the task, the purpose, the commander's intent, and the end state.
- The commander then shares these orders with his subordinates.
- Each subordinate is responsible for providing a brief back - "a verbal description of the unit's understanding of the mission and its role" (3).
- Soon after, the team holds a dress rehearsal.
- Finally, the team begins the mission. After-Action Reviews are conducted throughout the mission, not just at the end.
The After-Action meetings consist of three main parts that address four questions. The first step is a reiteration of the AAR rules (4):
- No thin skins.
- Leave your stripes at the door.
- Take notes.
- Focus on our issues, not the issues of those above us.
The team then conducts a comparison of the actual results versus the intended results. To help focus this conversation, they answer four questions (4):
- What were our intended results?
- What were our actual results?
- What caused our results?
- And what will we sustain or improve?
Once the team has addressed these questions, the senior commander provides his assessment of the lessons learned and the lessons that will be relevant in the immediate future. When the meeting ends, participants immediately hold AARs with their own teams, to continue the process through all levels of the unit. (7)
What do these meetings produce? Unlike most corporate lessons learned sessions, the Army's AARs aren't focused on creating a report or a presentation. They are focused on generating lessons, theories, and plans that can be applied immediately to the on-going mission. They avoid blame and instead focus on identifying ways to learn and improve. Rather than producing a post-mortem, they produce results.
AARs "focus on improving a unit's own learning and, as a result, its own performance." (4) In fact, "the group does not consider a lesson to be truly learned until it is successfully applied and validated." (2)
If this sounds like a far cry from the lessons learned sessions you've sat through, you're not alone. How does your organization conduct lessons learned? Do they actually result in learning?
Next up: Applying the principles of the AAR to the corporate project environment.
Darling, M., Parry, C., & Moore, J. (2005, July-August). Learning in the Thick of It. Harvard Business Review, 1-8.