What are after action reviews (AARs)?

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Summary

An after action review (AAR) is used to debrief a project or event and understand what took place, why it happened the way it did, and how to improve on it. It can highlight areas of strength or concern in your project and in your team. Read on to learn how to use AARs to learn from the past and improve for the future.

When you have a lot on your plate, you may jump from one project to the next with little transition time. Others depend on you to meet your deadlines, which means doing things fast to stay on track. But there’s something more important than meeting deadlines—project performance. 

To do your best work, you need time to reflect. That way, you can use past projects to improve on future ones. After action reviews (AARs) provide a transition between projects and offer a moment to assess what went well and what didn’t.

What is an after action review?

An after action review (AAR) is a tool used to debrief a project or event to understand what took place, why it happened the way it did, and how to improve on it. When used correctly, it can highlight areas of strength or concern in your project and team. 

AARs provide insight into things like:

  • Team communication: Is your team communicating in a way that accomplishes work effectively?

  • Utilization rate: Do you have enough team members available to complete tasks by the deadline?

  • Project resources: Are enough resources available and allocated correctly to produce project deliverables?

  • Roles and responsibilities: Are team members performing their roles and responsibilities correctly and working collaboratively to get things done?

An AAR occurs at the end of a project, and its purpose is to improve future projects with similar workflows or features. For example, if the AAR reveals that your team struggled to allocate resources due to poor strategy, then you can develop a new allocation strategy for future projects.

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What are the 4 parts of an AAR?

An after action review is a four-part framework you can treat like a project workflow. Each phase of the framework has steps of its own that facilitate actionable reflection and improvement. 

[inline illustration] 4 parts of an after action review (infographic)

The four phases of an AAR are:

  1. Design: Identify the key details of your AAR.

  2. Prepare: Collect research on your project and plan the activities of your AAR.

  3. Implement: Dive into the reflection and analysis of your AAR

  4. Disseminate: Sort through your findings, write up a report, and create an action plan.

Use the steps below to dive deeper into each phase of the AAR and gain insights into your project’s overall performance. 

1. Design

The design phase is an opportunity to give your AAR structure. Projects have many parts, so it’s important to identify what approach you’ll take as you look for ways to improve. 

Define the scope and objectives:

Your AAR doesn’t need to analyze every team member, stakeholder, budget item, and milestone. To get the most insight from your AAR, define your scope and set key objectives for what you hope to accomplish. You’ll likely come into the review process with a basic idea of things you’re looking for or lessons you hope to walk away with. Use these ideas as your objectives. 

Identify stakeholders:

Stakeholders are anyone involved in the after action review process, as well as anyone affected by the insights you gain. These may include your team members, customers and clients, stakeholders from the project in question, and project executives. Keep these people in mind as you go through your AAR so you can gain a diverse range of perspectives. 

2. Prepare

In the preparation phase, you’ll gather information and materials to perform the bulk of the AAR process. This phase should also involve discussion with your team about what activities and questions you want to ask when analyzing the parts of your project you identified in the design phase.

Conduct research:

The research part of preparation involves gathering project materials to help your team answer questions during the next phase of the AAR. If you’re focusing your AAR on how your team managed the project’s budget and resources, then you’ll want to access the budget proposal, research the vendors used, and pull up purchase receipts and budget communication logs.

Gather workshop materials:

Your team can brainstorm what workshop activities would be best for the AAR project and topic in question. If you’re looking for pain points in a larger project timeline, then event-storming or pain point mapping can be helpful. For these activities, you’ll need a whiteboard and sticky notes. You can also try playing, “What, So What, Now What?” which won’t require much in the way of materials. This reflective model helps teams go through levels of reflection to find solutions.

3. Implement

The implementation phase is where you’ll begin your AAR discussion and analysis. At this point, you should know what you want to talk about in the AAR session, how you want to analyze the topic, and who else is involved.

Conduct workshops and analysis:

  • Using the materials you gathered in phase two, begin workshopping your project. If you’re event-storming, you’ll place key events and actions along an imaginary timeline with sticky notes. Discuss the order of events and identify potential pain points along the timeline. If you’re pain-point mapping, you’ll chart these points along an x- and y-axis grid, with the y-axis being pain and the x-axis being effort. 

Ask four key questions:

There are four key questions to answer during every AAR: 

  1. What did we expect to happen?

  2. What actually occurred?

  3. What went well and why?

  4. What can we improve upon and how?

By answering these questions, you’ll fully debrief the project topic and understand how to improve.

4. Disseminate

After workshopping your project topic and answering the four key questions, it’s time to disseminate your findings. The final step is to draw up an after action report, which summarizes the information and offers actionable recommendations for the future. 

Draw conclusions:

Once you create an after action report, you can reference it on future projects. You can use this report to draw conclusions about what went well, what didn’t, and what corrective actions you should take. For example, you may conclude that you went over budget because you didn’t do enough frontend research when creating the budget proposal.

Create an action plan:

When drawing conclusions from your AAR, come up with solutions for how to do better in the future. While your solutions may not apply to every future project, it can feel good to go into new projects with a higher level of preparedness. For example, the action plan you create may include a detailed budget proposal planning process or resource allocation strategy.

Read: 7 types of process improvement methodologies you should know about

Example of an after action review

Here’s an example of an after action review for a social media campaign project. This AAR report reviews how the team handled the budget and resources of the project. 

[inline illustration] After action review (AAR) template (example)

In this after action review template, you’ll see sections for the team to work through the AAR structure, prepare for the workshop, and answer the four key questions. 

After action review template

Use this after action review template below as a guide for your next project.

Free after action review template.

This document should serve as a companion for you and your team. As you conduct AARs, either in person or virtually, actively discuss the topic in question to answer questions and find solutions.

Benefits of AARs

It’s more effective to show team members how to improve with examples from past projects than to tell them. Showing gives you the opportunity to lead by example and builds trust with your team. 

When you take the insights from your AAR and put them into action, you’ll see your work improve as well as your team dynamic

[inline illustration] benefits of after action reviews (AARs) (infographic)

Benefits of AARs include:

  • Inspires innovation: When teams understand where previous mistakes occurred, they can come up with creative solutions to improve.

  • Leads to better decision making: Taking time to reflect helps leaders and team members make better decisions moving forward.

  • Identifies past mistakes: AARs provide an opportunity to review past projects and identify any mistakes or mishandled pain points

  • Creates team synergy: The workshop nature of AARs gives groups a chance to work together and produce a valuable action plan—this is positive synergy in action.

  • Improves future projects: The ultimate goal of an AAR is to make future projects better.

The main benefit of using an AAR is to learn. When you learn from your past, you’ll become more skilled for the future. As a form of continuous improvement, AARs help you make small changes by removing inefficiencies from your past, which ultimately leads to large, long-term improvements.

Facilitate your AAR with work management software

Team collaboration is crucial to AARs, and your team will learn a lot from each other as you work together to improve. To streamline project debriefing, place your review template and subsequent action plan in a work management tool. This will allow you to share your materials and input project information with ease. Create an AAR workflow with Asana and watch how seamlessly your projects improve.

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