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Being an old guy, I’ve cycled through a metric ton of tools and processes and approaches and methodologies over my decades in consulting. With very few exceptions, they’re all good and the perpetual search for a new way of doing x (whatever x may be) is a bit silly. Ultimately, any approach to anything doesn’t yield much until the people using it become so adept at its application that the technique becomes sub-conscious. Line up the five best actors you can think of and in that group there will be at least three distinct acting methods being deployed. Or a great guitarist shredding a lead part – she isn’t thinking about her technique, through repetition and practice, it’s just there for her when she needs it.

One of the most useful processes I ever encountered was the After-Action Review (AAR). This was originally developed by the US Military as a way of driving continuous learning and improvement. At it’s core, it holds up expected vs. actual results and goes through a granular breakdown of when, where and how the actual veered from the planned. That applies, by the way, whether expectations were met, exceeded or missed. The Military so thoroughly embraces the approach that there are formal AARs as well as informal AARs at all levels. I was first exposed to the process (by two very gifted consultants who were ex-military). Usually when something fell short there was plenty of culpability to go around and the point was to figure out where, whether structural, operational, or human we started to fall off track so we could learn individually and as a team how to avoid those hiccups in the future. For awhile, it was widely used in the business world, particularly among internal and external consulting teams and within product teams.

Eventually, like all approaches, it faded. Which was a good thing. The AAR itself needed an AAR. Over about a ten year period it seemed like they were more likely to yield the person to blame for a failure than a way to learn from failure. And when reviewing a success it was more like a party and a coronation of the leader of the moment than a sincere distillation of what happened. I found the post-success AARs to be extremely useful. Just as every investor looks like a genius in a bull market, every initiative looks successful during a market wide growth binge. Sometimes, you hit something out of the park because the team did something really notable and brilliant. Sometimes you’re in a broader run where everything works. Sometimes, you hit a resonating frequency with a market segment just right…but it wasn’t the frequency you were aiming for or the segment you expected. An AAR in those conditions is helps you learn what’s worth repeating and recognizing when you caught a wave or just got lucky so you don’t make the mistake of doing the same thing in the future and being surprised when it doesn’t work.

If there was one aspect of an AAR I treasured most it was the tenet that we, the team, failed or we, the team, succeeded. At no point, was it about who to blame. I have no military experience but I did notice that when an AAR was led by someone who did, that principle was inviolable. I am told that’s how we do it in our armed forces but won’t insult any service men or women by pretending I have hands on experience.

I hadn’t done an AAR in years until recently when a client asked me to facilitate one on something I’d not been involved in. It was something this company did as “part of our DNA” (Alchemist Note: there is no such thing as a corporate DNA and when you say that it’s the same as saying “accident of birth”…so, please, stop prattling about you corporate DNA). Just the fact that they did AARs was an optimistic development from my POV. The client organization was really rather closed and uncollaborative. Lots of creative ideas were generated but they never got started on any of them. They did a great many safe, low risk-low reward programs that did exactly what they were supposed to do…which was very little. As part of my work there, I plotted their “Big Bets” over the previous five years on a simple Risk vs Reward Matrix (Alchemist Note: I have a bit of formal training in advanced mathematics…I love that in the business world a 2×2 graph is referred to as a matrix. It is…but kinda like a vespa is a motorcyle, technically correct but say that in the wrong place and you might get an ass kicking). This is what it looked like…

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Sadly, this is fairly common.

The session was dreadful. Using a structure that was familiar to me, what became clear was the concept of team success or team failure was not part of their culture. It felt like everyone stayed up the night before making their list of grievances and building their individual cases for why it wasn’t their fault.

I sucked as a facilitator. I was completely flabbergasted by the culture of blame and how incredibly useless the exercise was destined to be from the outset.

That got me curious. I started asking around of friends, colleagues, random strangers (really – I like striking up conversations with people I don’t know). I banged around on the interwebs. Here’s what I found:

  • There’s, like, 14 billion software tools, templates, and how-to articles on AARs.
  • All 14 billion are doing essentially the same thing
  • Nobody, and I mean NOBODY (in the business world), likes doing them
  • Nearly everyone thinks they should be really helpful but that they aren’t

There are two exceptions to the NOBODY observation above.

  1. Organizations where AARs are championed and owned by executives with military backgrounds – because they appear to do a great job of establishing a true team culture
  2. Organizations that have embraced Human-Centered Design – which is inherently collaborative and cannot thrive in a blame-based culture

So, what’s the fix?

In the spirit of Stop Doing Stupid Stuff – unless you’re organization routinely does AARs and they are led by ex-military people and/or you are in an organization that prizes collaborative design and has a collaborative culture…STOP DOING THEM. While the value proposition of incorporating AARs is still there, it is completely dependent on the humans that run it and the culture of the organization that asks for them to be run. If you’re doing them poorly (and it appears most companies are) you are not only failing to capture the value of the approach but you are killing collaboration and creative risk-taking. While those two things are unlikely to cause you to tank your company overnight they are a really good way of guaranteeing your company’s slow, steady, relentless march to irrelevance.

We’ve incorporated the best practices of AARs into our Experience Alchemists offerings. If a dispassionate and collaborative approach to learning from your successes or failures appeals to you, hit us up. We’d love to chat about it.

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