AAR: Does it work?

I would like to finish my current run on AAR blogs with a short story which I hope will show you how powerful it is and the benefits of both applying the system and embedding it throughout your organisation.  It is one of the many times that AAR has been of demonstrable benefit to me and my team.

camera phoneMy Regiment was on operations in Iraq and some camera phone video footage came into our possession.  It was the sort of stuff that can be found on the internet and quite openly on social media if you are so inclined to look for it but this was slightly different as we knew that it had come from somebody who had been engaged in attacks against us.  It showed how this person and his team were setting themselves up for and then executing their plans.  The footage came to us in the senior leadership team, we played it through, looked round and agreed that it didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know.  I did however say “Let the rest of the team look at it anyway” and it was duly distributed further.

We had been guilty of looking at that footage through a single lens, one based on our current understanding and we allowed what we saw to reinforce what we believed.  Fortunately, one of the more junior members of the Regiment came at it from a different angle.  He decided that his team should conduct an AAR on why we had been attacked in that instance.  He started with the premise that we had not gone out to be attacked and so being attacked was an event worthy of an AAR.

Two hours later, he came in with his commander and shared his conclusions:  we were employing a technique that whilst designed to protect us, made us vulnerable to this type of attack because it made certain crew members easy to target.  And, because he had followed the AAR process, he had also come up with a solution.  We considered it there and then and within 3 hours, the message had been passed across every unit in the Brigade (some 5000+ people) and remedial action was implemented immediately.  Did it save lives?  I can’t be absolutely certain but I’m pretty sure that it did.  If we had all relied on a casual and unstructured “What does this tell us?” approach, the outcomes might have been very different.

Reflecting on this example reminded me:

  • that the bosses don’t have all the answers,
  • what a powerful tool the AAR can be,
  • how important it is to learn how to use it,
  • how important it is to have the discipline to use it, and
  • how important it is to embed across the whole of the organisation.

If you want to know more about AAR, please contact one of the team at iTS-Leadership.

~Author: Tim Sandiford

AAR CALLING IT

Army AARYou may have read in the past that I spent about 6 weeks on exercise in Canada with my Regiment (described in my blog: “I Learned about leading from: that Rock Star”).  There is a very structured approach to the timetabling on such an exercise: the participants complete large live firing exercises and then undertake several mission sets during the TESEX (giant LaserQuest).  Each segment concludes with an After Action Review (AAR) during which they seek to learn lessons and then apply them during the next mission. It is a pressurised environment as at the end of the cycle, each Regiment receives a statement of technical competence and of their readiness to move onto mission specific training.  Who wants to be found wanting then?

We had completed the first mission and AAR cycle and at 0600hrs we moved out to begin our second mission set.  The first mission had been pretty good, plenty to learn but we were making appropriate progress.  Some 8 hours after the mission began, we were stuck, our combat power was dwindling fast and we ended up attacking an empty space.  This small pocket of “enemy” activity was meant to have been a sideshow, something that we would sweep aside by 0900hrs after which we would press on to the take main objective at last light and then defeat a counter attack the next morning.  It just wasn’t happening!  I asked my Second in Command to take over and then called my Commander and the Head of the Training Establishment and asked them to suspend training and conduct an AAR.  This was certainly unusual and given where we were in the training cycle and its proximity to earning our statement of competence, drawing attention to our failure might have been considered a high risk move. But for me, that was what AAR was all about:  we clearly had something to learn and 20 hours later would be too late.  They facilitated the AAR for us and I remember standing in front of my team before it started, telling them that I had called it and that I was hurting and confused because I didn’t understand why, in spite of our best efforts, we had had such a bad day: was it my plan, was it my decisions or direction during the “battle”, was it a lack of clarity or poor execution by the individual crews?  I wasn’t out to apportion blame, I was out to understand.

Did it pay off?  Well, we were much better over the next few days, received our statement of competence, deployed and had a successful operational tour and nobody sacked me!

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Dan Coyle says:

“…being vulnerable together is the only way a team can become invulnerable.”

meeting circle 3AAR facilitates that invulnerability but sometimes you have to be courageous enough to call one and then be willing to be vulnerable when you have.  In my experience, it’s always worth it and its never as bad as it seems!  That AAR taught me much but most of all, how important it is that the leaders believe in it and act upon it.  Improving your team isn’t someone else’s responsibility, it is yours and AAR is a fantastic way to do it and by having somebody else to lead the AAR, you as the leader can continue to set the tone that encourages vulnerability, openness and honest engagement and also truly immerse yourself in the learning process.

If you want to know more about AAR, please contact one of the team at iTS-Leadership.

~Author: Tim Sandiford

iTS AAR: The Journey

AAR - The JourneyI was so pleased to hear that BD were Highly Commended at the PF awards for the way in which they have both embraced and embedded After Action Review (AAR) into their organisational learning and continuous improvement culture.

One of the reasons that I was so pleased was that the words After Action Review got me introduced to Antony and the team at iTS-Leadership and so the next chapter in my life journey began.

I love AAR.  I know its power and the energy that it generates and of course I am grateful for what it has done for me (now), in the past and for those that I have worked with.  It has saved lives on operations, made us more effective, protected us against complacency, allowed to respond to rapidly changing environments and so on.  In short, it has made us better.

I was a relatively junior officer when the AAR was introduced into the Army and for many years found myself in roles and appointments where I was charged with championing and embedding the concept and facilitating AARs.  When it was first introduced, AAR was regarded with uncertainty and suspicion based on a range of fears and insecurities.  Those fears revolved around concerns that those being subject to an AAR would be judged, would be subject to criticism and that leaders would be shown to be ineffective in front of their teams, that people would look bad and would be publicly criticised.  There was also a touch of arrogance in there based on a belief that we did not need a process to help us to learn lessons, we were all intelligent enough to identify them for ourselves!

AAR is not about blame or competence, it is about learning and becoming better

Army AARSuch fears and concerns are natural particularly when the concept of AAR seems to be linked with events that have gone wrong.  It has been both fascinating to watch and be part of the journey that has seen the Army collectively come to understand that those fears were unfounded, AAR is not about blame or competence, it is about learning and becoming better:  who doesn’t want a boss who has the humility and courage to learn with the team?  Over time, it has become truly embedded in the Army’s culture and to very great effect and now rather than trying to persuade people of the value of AAR, the challenge is facilitating AARs for all of the teams who want them during training events.  In his most recent book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Dan Coyle highlights how AAR allows US Special Forces SEAL Teams to work at the intensity and level that they do.

My biggest learning since joining iTS-Leadership has been to see how effective the approach is when applied to business teams.  The intent is the same but the delivery is different, borne of and reflecting the different cultures and the relative infancy of the concept with those teams but what is constant is the incredible shifts that it can bring. You would struggle to find an article or TED talk that doesn’t highlight that the most effective teams have continuous learning and improvement at their heart.  Traditional process-based learning committees, top down reviews and the like do not always deliver on that count because they often allow us to remain in our silo, hear what we want to hear, are based on hierarchy and do not challenge us appropriately. AAR does not fall foul of those traits and it truly enables some great learning at all levels as a result.

If you want to know more, please contact one of the team at iTS-Leadership.

~Author: Tim Sandiford