The Difference Between Surviving and Thriving

Another year is in the books with a fresh new one now unfolding before us with all its promise. Some organizations were not able to survive the talent and supply-chain challenges and ultimately closed their doors. Others continue to scrape by as best they can, with skeleton crews and material delays that lead to shoulder-shrugging with customers for late deliveries or projects. And then there are those enterprises that finished their second consecutive best year ever despite the same issues everyone else is facing. What gives?

My take is that the secret to their success in these challenging times is the way they integrate leadership, learning, and execution to gain rapid and sustained competitive advantage. No doubt you’ve been on project teams or worked at a company that did post-mortems at the end of initiatives, or maybe a summary report of lessons learned was generated. While noble in their intent, these efforts often miss the mark, because despite the active search for lessons, many organizations fail to actually learn from them. That’s because they lack the rigor and precision of the After Action Review (or AAR).

Learning in the thick of it

I became familiar with AARs when I served as a U.S. Army officer early in my career (or as my kids call it, the late 1900s). The world was changing, the Army needed to overhaul itself, and it would cost a lot of taxpayer dollars—so it had to figure out how to maximize that investment in upgrading the force. Thus the AAR was born.

It’s a disciplined process that explicitly connects past experience with future action. The AAR became such a powerful tool that it was soon adopted by the other U.S. military services, and later by civilian businesses like Shell Oil, Nestle USA, Harley-Davidson, Colgate-Palmolive, Prratt & Whitney, and Morgan Stanley.

The process requires brutal honesty from all participants. As you might imagine, this was a big culture shock at first to the Army, where rank, age, and established SOPs are the organization’s bedrock elements. However, as colonels and generals were required to sit and listen to sergeants’ and lieutenants’ comments on how and why military operations succeeded or failed, the results were astounding. Army units doing AARs became more effective, agile learning organizations, as valuable lessons were quickly integrated into their next operation and into their long-range training plans.

Two intertwined ingredients

The first critical component behind the Army’s success with the AAR is humility. There’s no learning among people on a team without honesty and transparency, which leaders can encourage when they’re able to admit their own shortcomings and mistakes. This process simply doesn’t work without trust, and it starts with leaders being willing to be fallible in front of their subordinates.

The second essential element is courage. In a traditionally hierarchical organization like the Army, calling BS on the boss is usually considered an FCLM (fatal career-limiting maneuver), so it follows that courage is especially important and often difficult for the more junior people on the team. After all, who wants to look bad in front of their peers and superiors when picking up the pieces of a failed, high-profile initiative? Giving junior team members permission to critique leaders, combined with leaders’ willingness to listen and act, in a visible and genuine intent to improve and not to blame, boosts people’s trust not only in the AAR process but in the overall organization skyrockets.

How does it work? 6 ingredients & 2 warnings

Good news: Getting started with AARs is simple and virtually idiot proof. You don’t need any fancy software or to subscribe to another IT subscription service. But it does take commitment and discipline, in the form of a well-run meeting. Too many meetings already?

Warning #1: If you’re not willing to learn more intentionally from your failures and your successes, then don’t expect anything to change. High performers are obsessed with improving performance. Professional athletes do a version of the AAR by watching endless hours of game film. Trust me, you can spare 30 to 60 minutes to do this.

A good AAR session is simply asking six questions, capturing all participants’ responses, and assigning the actionable take-aways to the right person. Everyone leaves their rank and ego at the door, keep the pace quick, and encourage discussion where needed to understand all the input. You should also appoint an unbiased facilitator and a recorder. Here are the questions:

  1. What was supposed to happen with this project or initiative?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. Why did it happen?
  4. What three things contributed most to the positive results of the initiative or project?
  5. What three things most hindered our efforts?
  6. What three changes (additions, deletions, or revisions) should we make in our process or policy to improve next time?

Warning #2: This is not about producing a body of knowledge to file away in a report or in some e-repository. It’s about capturing the raw experience of what worked and what didn’t, and then feeding it directly back into your execution cycle. True masters of the AAR practice don’t consider a lesson truly and fully learned until it’s been successfully applied and validated in the next operation or project.

The After-Action Review is a focused, frank, and inclusive discussion about every significant effort—the wins, the losses, the draws—allows you to extract tactical lessons from one event or project and apply them quickly to others. Done consistently over time the exercise builds a culture of accountability and continuous improvement. And that’s a strategic competitive advantage that can take any team from surviving to thriving.

A version of this article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Knox.Biz, a business publication of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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Hi, I'm Kurt Greene, owner of Arrow G Consulting. I also lead CEO/executive peer groups in Knoxville for Vistage.

When I’m not helping CEOs and senior leaders to improve themselves and their companies, you can find me re-arranging the stack of unread books on my nightstand, daydreaming about airplanes, and seriously thinking about getting the ol' college rock band back together. Learn more about the exciting work we're doing here at Arrow G Consulting HERE.