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Ivan Novak
Ivan Novak

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After Action Report: The Ultimate Learning Tool

Ever had one of those project debriefs where everyone is sort of staring at their shoes, scuffing their feet and avoiding eye contact, like someone just farted? 

That is the classic post mortem or retrospective - often seen as the 'funeral' of a project.

But what if I told you it could be so much more?

It's time to reorient our attitudes toward the post-mortem. No other tool has been so consistently impactful for me in my career.

After Action Reports (AAR), known by other names such as Post Mortem, Retrospective, and Root Cause Analysis, the AAR dives deep into truly understanding what worked, what didn't, when it happened, and why.

It's a review of action, a reflection on results, and a window into the true context and timeline of events.

Is it easy? No. Is it valuable? Undeniably.

The Anatomy of an After-Action Report

Objective Analysis

An AAR starts by setting clear goals for what you aim to learn. It's not a blame game but a learning experience, asking questions to gain insights to use in future work.

If the effort was successful, ask why. Why wasn't it more successful? What could we have done better? When? What opportunity was missed? It's amazing how frequently successes are only celebrated rather than treated as another outcome to learn from. Absolutely, celebrate it. Just don't stop there. Sometimes the key to greater success isn't doing something completely different, but doing what you already did again but better and more often

If the effort was unsuccessful, ask why. Assume the idea was good and well reasoned and figure out where it went wrong. What assumptions were incorrect? What context made the outcome less desirable? How did the environment play a factor? What one action was the catalyst for the fizzled launch? 

Action Review

Detailing the actions taken during a project, understanding the context and timeline, allows for an accurate assessment of outcomes.

If you or your team is more interested in avoiding potential blame, you're doing it wrong.

If you or your team don't want to dig into the actual timeline of events, you're doing it wrong.

If you or your team don't want to learn what actually was the cause of the outcome, you're doing it wrong.

It's SO EASY to do it wrong. Even by simply not including detail you or the team can obfuscate the real reasons behind the outcome.

Prioritize the learning, if not for your team or organization, do it for yourself. 

Simply: Be smarter by not repeating previous failures.

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" - Apparently not an Einstein quote

The trouble is, sometimes folks don't want to know that they're repeating actions!

Identifying Successes and Failures

It's essential to recognize both successes and failures, drawing insights from both to inform future actions.

It's COMPLETELY possible to have a total failure, with some bright spots that deserve to be highlighted and scheduled for inclusion in the next effort.

It's also COMPLETELY possible to have a total success, with some dim spots that deserve to be highlighted and avoided for the next effort.

No plan survives first contact. But now that you've made first contact you can plan your next iteration better and keep going!

Causal Exploration

Go beyond surface-level observations. Dive into the root causes, exploring why certain results were achieved. This deep understanding guides future efforts.

Implementing AAR in Tech Projects

Creating a Safe Environment

Cultivate a blame-free, learning-first culture where everyone can share insights honestly, ensuring an open and productive discussion. Did someone screw up? Probably! That's a totally awesome learning outcome! Now we can all be less dumb! Celebrate all outcomes. Raise the bar.

Involving All Stakeholders

Everyone involved in the project should participate in the AAR, as diverse perspectives lead to richer, more complete insights.

Does one stakeholder refuse to participate in learning with the team? What does that tell the rest of the team? How can you make this a priority for all members?

Time Sensitivity

Conduct the AAR as soon after the project's conclusion as possible to ensure fresh and accurate insights. 

Did X happen before or after Y? Who remembers? Take notes along the way then compare notes!


Record findings meticulously. An AAR's value extends into the future, providing guidance for subsequent projects.

We're about to kick off our annual marketing initiative. What sounds better?

Option A: Who ran it last time? Smitty? Yea, let's just kick it over to Smitty since he did it last time. 

Option B: What did we do last time? Let's see last year's AAR. Oh yea, we should have done FOO when we did BAR! Let's plan the effort and turn it up a notch! 

I hope the answer is obvious.

After Action Reports stand as a massively powerful tool in the pursuit of continuous improvement and learning. Challenging (potentially emotional) yet highly valuable, these reports enable you and the teams you're a part of to reflect, learn, and grow. 

Choose learning & discovery over hiding. Have the courage to look.

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