The AAR Process: The Army’s Secret to Being All You Can Be

BY J.P. HOGAN

 

The U.S. Army underwent a significant transformation during my 30-year career as an officer. Although many different programs and technologies enabled this transformation, one of the most significant was the After Action Review (AAR) process. The AAR was practiced across the Army, and it led to significant and lasting performance improvement at all levels.

My appreciation for the AAR has transferred over into my career as a business consultant. Its simplicity and effectiveness make it as useful in the boardroom as it was on the battlefield.

Here’s how it works: after each significant activity, the leader conducts a detailed review of the event with all stakeholders. The purpose is to answer the following questions:

  1. What were we trying to accomplish?
  2. What was the outcome?
  3. What factors influenced the outcome?
  4. What can we do differently in the future to better satisfy our objectives?
  5. What should we continue to do in then future to assure success?

Although simple enough to undertake, following through with the process requires considerable discipline. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that leaders often feel threatened by an open discussion when some of their own decisions are under scrutiny. It can be equally troubling for the rest of the group, because no one wants their ideas to be ridiculed. Nor do they want to make themselves subject to retaliation from a leader who feels his actions or ideas are being criticized.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that, in the early stages of implementing the AAR, Army process leaders were inclined to focus on the things that went right while pushing any discussion of weaknesses into the background. But it soon became apparent that the organizations who used the AAR to identify and address weaknesses were the ones who excelled. Officers that conducted disciplined and rigorous AARs quickly established reputations as outstanding leaders.

 

What separated those leaders from the rest was their commitment to creating “safe space.” Leaders who create a culture that encourages open discussion are able to tap into the wellspring of skill and experience resident in the people on their team. This, in turn, significantly increases the probability that the company will excel and be populated by engaged and energized employees.