Looking Back to Step Forward: After Action Reviews

Devin Vodicka

This was originally posted to https://learnercenteredleadership.blogspot.com/ on May 11, 2020.

As we are approaching the end of this atypical school year, school leaders are working hard to finish strong as they also are developing multiple scenarios for next year.  The level of uncertainty for the fall is creating conditions that make it exceedingly difficult to have high levels of confidence.  Budgets are unknown, requirements for ensuring health and safety are unknown, social distancing requirements are unknown, staffing availability is unknown … The list could go on and on.  

In the face of so much uncertainty, one strategy is to orient awareness and attention retrospectively to help inform plans for the future.  One of my favorite protocols that I recommend using at this time is an “After Action Review” (AAR) which provides structure to guide the development of a shared understanding about how to learn from our experiences.  Given the complexity of the current situation, spending time with small groups reflecting on expectations, current reality, and insights is a wise use of our efforts.  

The After Action Review prompts are deceptively simple:

  • What was expected to happen? 
  • What actually occurred? 
  • What went well and why? 
  • What can be improved and how?

Having used this protocol in the past, even the first question around expectations can yield incredible insights into convergence or variation among a group.  In addition, the conversation around what “actually occurred” can make visible the incredible differences in perspective even when there are shared experiences.  At a time when we are isolated, creating a collective surface to have more empathy with one another is an important leadership strategy.  

I also love how once there is some common context the next question focuses on what went well with an exploration into the “why” of those successes.  Appreciative inquiry is a great way to celebrate the hard work and ingenuity of individuals and teams.  My experience also shows that many times this exploration reveals the benefits of collaboration and cross-functional efforts which are sometimes under-appreciated and often critical in any success endeavor.  

Finally, there are always opportunities to improve and this protocol shifts to specific recommendations for the future.  Making visible, sharing, and then acting upon these recommendations is an effective leadership approach to improve relational trust.  As we know from research, a foundation of relational trust is likely to improve the odds of future success.  

Collective Impact #Toolbox: After Action Reviews · Living Cities

The After Action Review prompts are helpful to guide and ground conversations.  The process, when used with integrity, generates improvements in relationships and culture.  The outcomes, which clarify practices to continue, practices to eliminate, and new practices to begin, build capacity for the future.  In the context of great uncertainty, now is an opportune time to bring teams together to reflect, build trust, and to begin to generate insights into how to navigate the path ahead.  

Here is a helpful guide with more information about how to organize and implement an After Action Review.  

For additional leadership perspective, please check out Learner-Centered Leadership.  

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