After Action Reviews

After action reviews (AARs) are one of the greatest ways to improve performance and learning, increase intellectual capital and share knowledge within an accounting firm.

I first became aware of AARs when reading Firm of the Future, a must-read by one of my great friends, Paul Dunn, which he co-wrote with another accounting legend Ron Baker. And interestingly the topic came up recently as part of our Full Disclosure series on pricing, where Ron was our guest. The topic drew a large number of questions from attendees at the event and subsequently, hence this blog post.

We introduced the process within my accounting firm, but I have to admit the formal process was used far too infrequently. The team chose to use a quicker process (start, stop, keep) more often. And whilst helpful in itself, it lost so much of the power of the AAR. In hindsight, I would have not let that happen and kept start/stop/keep for appraisals only.

after action reviews

What are after action reviews?

An AAR is a structured review or debriefing process for analysing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better by the participants and those responsible for the project or event. AARs in the formal sense were originally developed by the U.S. Army. Their goal was never to reinvent the wheel. Formal AARs are used by all US military services and by many other non-US organisations. Their use has extended to business as a knowledge management tool. And a way to build a culture of accountability, continuous improvement and knowledge sharing.

Why they help?

The purpose of After Action Reviews is quite simple; learning, improving and doing better next time. The process involves the team, so it inherently improves their understanding and analysis skills. And when properly documented, a library of AARs builds the intellectual capital of the firm. It provides a structured process that makes sure we can understand what worked well or didn’t. And what we do to either replicate, improve or change to make sure we do even better next time.

Once your team is comfortable dissecting the performance after each engagement, they will be better equipped to make plans and preparations in advance of the next assignment. As Ron Baker said, “As a result, innovation, creativity and risk-taking will flourish as the firm constantly strives for improvement in an iterative process that respects and rewards learning.”

When used frequently, they foster a true team environment.Making everyone responsible for the success of the engagement and they provide a tool for leaders to become more engaged and invested in the success of their teams.

Even if the team is small or only completed by a single employee, they are still an effective way to spread learning and knowledge within the firm.

How do you conduct After Action Reviews?

Each team member who worked on an engagement (or as part of an event team) sits down with a facilitator (or more senior member of the team), who has been with them throughout the event, and they discuss what happened. The role of the AAR is to be analytical and not critical. Therefore it should not be taken as an excuse to point fingers or apportion blame.

To be successful, there must be a fairly unambiguous understanding of what should have happened, the results that were expected and the timeframe. There needs to be a good basis for understanding what actually happened. This keeps the process focussed on improving team performance rather than individual performance. Questions like “what did you think I expected” rather than “how did you mess that up” are critical to getting to the truth about success and failure.

after action reviews

It’s not an easy process and takes time. Like everything else, it’s about continuous improvement. But to get the true benefit, we need to ensure and foster a culture of trust. And that means a strict ‘no blame’ policy and being seen to take action on the recommendations or reporting back why they may have been amended. 

Immediacy is also key to ensure success, as people remember more straight after an event than down the line. And, improvements can be made quickly. These may apply to other engagements or areas of the firm too.

The US Army suggests that we spend 25% of our time reviewing what happened, 25% reviewing why it happened and 50% on what to do about it and what we can learn to improve.

We also need to be clear about how the information is stored for easy searching, retrieval and use.

Conclusion

After Action Reviews do take time away from potentially chargeable work, but please don’t underestimate their power and dismiss them out of hand because of time. The outcomes and return on investment, measured by improved performance, is very high.

If you want to use our template for AARs you can download it here. Feel free to amend as appropriate for your firm.

Download our template

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