I have long been an enthusiast of After Action Reviews. After Action Reviews were first institutionalised by the Military. After any military action the team involved will always sit down as a group – all ranks – and will assess what they collectively and individually did well…or didn’t do so well. They leave their After Action Reviews having learned as individuals and as a team. They leave knowing what they will do better next time. There is a big motive here of course; many military actions are – quite literally – a matter of life and death for those involved.
I looked long and hard for an example of After Action Reviews where the motive wasn’t a life and death? The best I have found is professional sports. Masses of electronic data are collected on every event – data that are analysed to work out how to systematically improve both individual and team performance. Sport is definitely not life or death…and the After Action Reviews are definitely all about learning and improving. But this example is another of those dreaded sporting analogies.
So this is where I am – After Action Reviews are carried out amazingly well in the military and in professional sports. I couldn’t find two less ideal analogies if I wanted to. And this frustrates me. The concept and spirit of After Action Reviews is so good and so positive. After Action Reviews are all about openness and learning after completion or delivery. There is no blame. No gloating. No defensiveness. No pulling rank. The focus is only on lessons being learned by every individual involved, and by the team as a whole – good and bad. Learning that can also be shared with others.
Any organisation that capitalise on After Action Reviews has to be a ‘learning organisation’. An organisation where After Action Reviews are systematically applied to all activities – activities by individuals, teams, business units and even by organisation as a whole. Where output and impact of learning is expected and required…shared and communicated…at all levels and on all actions. And where – by default – internal learning is shared with external partners and – wherever possible – with potential competitors.
Most organisations have at least one area in which they apply (in effect) After Action Reviews…and that is to individual performance. Colleagues will sit down – normally twice a year – with a supervisor to review their performance to date (strengths and weaknesses…highs and lows…impact and output). And moreover, this review will include observations and insights solicited from colleagues who have worked with, or observed in action, the individual undergoing the (After Action) Review.
This by itself is very impressive. Done well, such reviews have potential to create an organisation resourced by individuals who strive (and who are expected) to improve and learn and deliver more. But to truly be a learning organisation, an organisation itself has to learn. After Action Reviews would need to be part of the institution. Every project, every program. Every innovation and every activity. It may sound complicated or time consuming. It doesn’t have to be. The goal has to be for After Action Reviews to become institutionalised – to become part of how an organisation operates every day.
Almost by definition, learning is discovering something we don’t know…and then capitalising on that knowledge. And this then is why a learning organisation has such potential to succeed so much and to progress so far. New learning leads to new solutions, new ideas, new opportunities, new value and new levels of performance.
Learning organisations are amazing places to be part of – engaging and inspiring. Rewarding and developing. Enjoyable and fulfilling.