Tuesday, October 2, 2012

After action review: The most eye-opening business success tool

The most brilliant business advice is often the most obvious -- and forgotten. Today we wanted to reinvigorate what we think is one of those golden nuggets of advice that all businesspeople should know, yet few have probably heard of or remember to do consistently.

We can't take credit for it though. What we're about to tell you is something borrowed from the military, and has since been adapted for the business realm. Here's the scoop.

It starts with three words: after action review. The U.S. Army was the first to develop after action reviews for its missions. These de-briefs let troops analyze what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better to help them learn from their experiences and improve performance. This process has vast applicability and value to business projects, tasks, and meetings -- large and small.

You will answer four simple questions after an "action" happens. In business, the action can be anything from a sales meeting to a project planning session to a one-on-one meeting with your boss. Here are the questions:

1. What did we expect to happen? Going into a situation knowing you have to answer this question afterward will cause you to define your outcome in advance. When your goal is clear and expectations are defined, you have a greater chance of success.

2. What actually happened? Leave emotion aside and take an objective look at what actually happened. Describe as much detail as you can, because seemingly small events can influence results. Don't be surprised if each participant has a different perspective on this question. It is important that the group reach consensus on this question.

3. Why was or wasn't there a difference? At this point you've identified your expectations and actual results, allowing you to determine any differences between the two scenarios. Keep in mind, the results could have been better than expected, worse than expected, or spot on. In any event, determine why this is. This is another area where the group might have to brainstorm and work together to achieve consensus. Avoid placing blame or taking credit.

4. What can you do next time to improve or ensure these results? If the results were less than expected, what steps should you take to improve them? What went wrong that you can fix next time? On the other hand, if results were exactly or better than what you expected, what tactics and strategies are repeatable to ensure similar or better results? This is the heart of the review and should consume about 50 percent of the review time.

Follow this process as soon as you're finished the activity, because it will be fresh in your mind and you'll be better able to write down all the details and lessons learned. Keep your documentation well organized so you can easily refer back to it when planning future projects.

The beauty of an after action review is its ability to help you uncover insight into your planning and execution processes, shining light on areas that were performed well and areas that can be improved. If you realized less-than-stellar results, the after action review process can be instrumental in helping you recognize where things fell apart so you can formulate ways to improve these areas. Equally important, you can see what drove excellent results, revealing possible best practices you should repeat in subsequent endeavors. Either way, you glean insights for driving higher performance.

Here's a simple example. You might have wanted a presentation delivered to you as a PowerPoint, but your team gave you an Excel spreadsheet. Your team had to go back and work the information into a PowerPoint, delaying the project. Then you realize you never defined what format to create the presentation in. So you learn that format is a factor you must define with all future assignments.

The after action review process is centered on actions and activities, rather than moments in time, like months or quarters. The more often you use it, the better able you'll be able to identify incremental improvements that, made over time, can compound to generate better results.

Finally, remember to leave the blame out of it. That includes blaming yourself if you feel you failed by some measure. This review process is a learning tool, not a disciplinary action. When we're busy trying to defend ourselves, we're not in a learning mode. As a leader, you have the ability to undermine the process by turning it into the blame game, or embrace the process and gain all the efficiencies and productivity benefits it can provide you and your team.

Although we've talked about the after action review process in a business sense, you can also apply it in other areas as well. Consider class assignments, group projects, job interviews, parenting moments, and countless other scenarios. You can even use it at the end of the day when you think about why you did or did not accomplish all that you had planned. The after action review is appropriate whenever you want to improve your performance professionally, academically, or personally.

We encourage you to try this process with your next project or meeting, and we hope it lets you gain valuable takeaways. Feel free to let us know how it works out for you by leaving a comment. We'd love to hear your story.