Work today, learn tomorrow, and never the two shall meet, right? That working and learning are two separate activities is one of the worst misconceptions in business. Fortunately, you can reverse the trend in your workplace by following the example of one very large organization that in many respects is well ahead of the curve on workplace learning— the U.S. Army. It has a process called after-action reviews (AARs) that builds learning into every experience, from conducting inventory at a base kitchen to facing enemy fire.
AARs are powerful in their simplicity, so the practices that make AARs effective for the Army can be applied to your teams and projects. Each review is designed to answer just three questions— What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? How do we account for the difference?
While those seem like simple questions, getting candid answers can be a tricky and complicated process, especially when what actually happened isn’t entirely good news. With that in mind, the Army built in five important guidelines to guarantee each AAR is an open, lively and meaningful learning experience.
- AARs are not special meetings. If the Army called AARs for only certain exercises or projects, team members might suspect it was just an excuse to place blame. The routine nature of these meetings helps lay those fears to rest. AARs are a regular discipline and an integral part of all work, and this makes them effective.
- Everyone involved in the action must attend. If ten people participate in an action, you have ten valuable perspectives on what happened. Mandatory attendance for the entire team acknowledges and respects each viewpoint, sends a message of shared responsibility, and ensures everyone will benefit from whatever knowledge is gained.
- Comments shared cannot be used in any kind of personnel action. If people fear recrimination for criticizing the actions of others, or if they’re worried about their own reputations, they may not speak up. By guaranteeing that whatever is said in an AAR stays among the team, the Army promotes the kind of candor that allows sensitive and critical information to flow more freely.
- Notes taken are for the team’s use only. As with the previous guideline, the purpose here is to create a safe place where team members can speak openly. Information must be recorded to preserve what is learned, but each team member is assured the notes will not be forwarded up the chain of command.
- AARs are facilitated by a team member. This is one more step toward preserving the integrity of the team and ensuring any airing of dirty laundry stays among its members. The agenda for an AAR is straighforward— just answer three questions. Sophisticated facilitation is not needed.
British Petroleum so admired this knowledge transfer process that it built it into its business practices, but with a significant modification. Since many of its projects have several distinct phases, BP holds AARs at each milestone along the critical path. A single project might entail more than ten AARs—all beneficial, all valuable.
MIT Senior Lecturer Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, says that “The Army’s After Action Review is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised.” And whether you call them “AARs” like the Army, or “hansei” (reflection) like Toyota, “lessons learned” like Bechtel, “morbidity conferences” like hospitals, or “standing meetings” (so named because everyone stands to ensure brevity) like Bio-Tek Instruments, they all serve the same vital function of capturing and sharing valuable knowledge critical to project success.
When these meetings are built into your workday regimen, they prove that working and learning can happen at the same time.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.