What is an After Action Report?
An After-Action Report (AAR) is a detailed critical summary or analysis of a past event, created to re-assess decisions and consider possible alternatives for future scenarios. AARs can help summarize and categorized notes taken during and throughout an event and provide participants with early and tangible lessons to the response of an event. AARs can be used for both planned and unplanned events, including table-top exercises or drills and real-world events, and are commonly used for public health emergency preparedness and response.
For the AAR process to be successful, the team needs to discover for itself the lessons provided by the experience. The more open and honest the discussion, the better. Here are some of the key elements of an effective AAR:
Discuss the purpose and rules - The AAR does not seek to criticize negatively or find fault. The emphasis should be on learning, so make this clear right from the start to achieve maximum involvement, openness, and honesty.
Encourage active participation - When setting the rules, talk about trust. Emphasize that it is OK to disagree, and that blame is not part of the discussion. Personal attacks must be stopped immediately. Setting the right tone for an AAR is extremely important.
Use a facilitator - A neutral party helps focus the discussion. This person asks questions and can often lead the discussion in such a way that it remains nonjudgmental.
Talk about TEAM performance - The AAR is not about individual performance. Look at how the team performed, and do not assign blame.
Conduct the AAR as soon as possible - For feedback to be effective, it should be timely. By doing an AAR quickly, you will get a more accurate description of what happened. It also helps ensure that all (or most) of the team can participate.
Focus the discussion with skillful questioning - If you ask, "How do you think that went?" this can be too broad a topic to discuss. Instead, direct participants to think about specific issues or areas: "How well did you cooperate?" "How could communication have been better?" "What planning activities were most effective?"
Discussion questions typically center around three themes:
- What was supposed to happen?
- What did happen?
- Why was there a difference?
- What worked? What did not work? Why?
- What would you do differently next time?
Start by getting participants to agree on what was supposed to happen. If the original objectives were unclear, then it is unlikely that the project or activity was highly successful. Once you have agreement, you can discuss actual versus intended results. You may need to return to the objectives as you move on to what worked and what you would do differently.
Remember to ask open questions, so that participants don't think that there's a "right" or "wrong" answer:
What would you have preferred to happen?
What would you do differently next time?
How could the situation have been prevented?
In your opinion, what is the ideal procedure?
Sometimes it's helpful to have participants each write down their ideas, and then ask everyone to share.
Write the key discussion questions on a whiteboard or flipchart. This helps participants focus on the main purpose of the meeting.
Let the team talk - This is an exercise in effective communication, not just feedback and continuous learning. The better the team members communicate with one another and work out differences, the stronger they will be in the future - as both individuals and team players.
Record the recommendations - Write down the specific recommendations made by the team. Then forward this information to other team leaders and stakeholders. This is how AARs contribute to organization-wide learning and improvement.
Provide follow-up and training - If no one follows up on the recommendations, then time spent on the process is wasted. Create a system to ensure that the ideas gathered in the AAR are incorporated into operations and training activities.