After Action Review

I promised I would blog about a great tool for gaining knowledge. In the teaser I said, “many people think they know about, yet seldom put into practice” this tool. What I am referring to is, in the simplest terms, a debrief. I want to share with you a technique that is a little more structured than simply “reviewing what happened.” Useful and practical knowledge is gained best when we reflect and respond on what we know… when we develop the discipline of doing it all the time.

The best pattern to gain any of this information is to develop a pattern to learn before, during and after any given event. So without boring you with to much detail I want to show you a very cool technique that can help you grow personally and in your business. It is something the US Army has done ever since the Vietnam War. It is called an After Action Review or AAR. An AAR will help you determine what you’ve learned from an event whether it is a success or failure with the goal of improving future performance. It is an opportunity for you to reflect on a project, activity, event or task so that the next time, you can do better and be more effective.

David DuChemin and I did an AAR frequently during the last Lumen Dei workshop. I think it helped us to do minor changes along the way to improve the product we were delivering. I have used the AAR in my own work to check where I am going with a shoot. Let me explain how it works.

AARs should be incorporated at key points during a project, activity, event or task. It is often helpful to do in the early planning stages and always should be performed at the end of an event. An AAR can be done anywhere and because of it’s simplicity.When I say, “Anywhere” I mean in the field, over in a corner during a coffee break, in a team meeting room when everyone is present, or even by yourself. The point is to gather everyone who knows something about what happened. Each person has their own perspective and that is powerful in bringing to the surface the important issues. And it helps to keep everyone focused on the end goals. Remember you can use an AAR to critique a whole project, a shoot, or even just something as simple as one image and the vision or story you where trying to communicate in that shot.

OK, so how do you do it? As I said it is simple. You are just asking three sets of questions:

1. What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Why were there differences?
2. What worked? What didn’t? Why?
3. What would you do differently next time?

1. What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Why were there differences?

This is where you review the proposed plan. This step makes sure everyone is on the same page or if you are doing this alone, it helps to remind you what you were thinking, what your vision was. What did you intend to happen or communicate. Then, as factual as you can make it, you need to look at what did in fact happen. It is important to highlight the differences between what was planned and what actually took place. What is it you actually achieved.

2. What worked? What didn’t? Why?

Here you get at the real cause of why something worked or didn’t. Ask yourself or others, what did you like about the event, shoot or image and why? In this step it is important to keep pounding out the “why” question. Don’t let some someone say, “It just didn’t work for me.” Ask, why. So, if the light’s for the shoot didn’t arrive, ask, “Why?” Why did the fixer did not get the permissions for the shoot? In this set we are trying to establish the data for the next set of questions. So you need solid facts.

3. What would you do differently next time?

This is where you take the facts from the previous steps and make clear changes. Clear identifiable action steps that help you avoid the same mistakes. By using the “whys” something did not work and making action steps you keep from reinventing the wheel.

It is easy to develop lots of ideas to change. I focus on picking the “vital few.” Pick two or three changes to apply the next time. You are more likely to succeed if you make little improvements quickly and again and again rather than attempting too much that takes too long to implement.

Something that I personally don’t do, but should, is note down all the responses to these steps on paper. Making notes throughout the whole AAR will help you keep track of course changes and give you a record to refer back to in the future.

As I stated at the beginning, this is a simple yet effective way to maintain focus and direction. If you will learn to use this tool in your office or as you plan and execute and event or shoot you will find you will stay closer to what you had in visioned as your goal or out come. If you develop a habit of reflective practice using the AAR you will soon see your own personal best practices develop over time. I think you will be amazed at the growth you will witness in your own skills and abilities, as well as how much more effective you will be in your business.

For more on the After Action Review:

USAID AAR Technical Guide

Wiki AAR

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1 Comment

  1. Grungemann

    Wise advice..eventhough I didn’t know about AAR, I did preactice a part of it.

    Shooting wedding functions normally involve organization and clear communication between various group of people..which are hard to manage.

    At least, now I can learn something from the army 😉


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