Action Reviews in Business
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Shaping the conditions for agility, accountability and continuous improvement

After Action Reviews (AAR) and the complete Action Review Cycle (ARC)

In practice, the term “After Action Review” is somewhat misleading, because the methodology encompasses the entire span of before, during and after action. The After Action Review meeting (AAR) is only the most visible part of a cycle that encompasses planning, preparation, execution and review. From its origin three decades ago at its National Training Center, the U.S. Army honed it as a principal method for leaders at any level to bring their teams to high levels of effectiveness in the face of extremely challenging environments.

As every organization has its own culture (and differs from that of the Army), adaptations were necessary to successfully apply the Army's proven practices elsewhere. Signet adapted and streamlined the Army's learning cycle, now referred to as the "Action Review Cycle" (ARC), so that it is effective in civilian settings. The great strength of ARC disciplines are that they are simple, focused, scaleable, and can be used in any situation where there is a recurring work process or challenge worth improving effectiveness. Further, it has shown itself effective in shaping highly desireable cultural effects, such as increased accountability, agility, and confidence in leadership.

As Marilyn Darling and Charles Parry show,
the crucial difference lies in the synergy between culture and method.
— Peter Senge

How Signet became the leading source of expertise on the AAR cycle

In the late 90's, Signet researchers investigated the 20 year evolution of the method and compared it to early attempts to replicate it in civilian environments. We published a detailed study of the evolution of the AAR, "From Post Mortem to Living Practice." Three key findings: Most early adopters (1980—2000) fell far short of the impact and value potentially available. Why? They focused entirely on the AAR meeting, treating it as a "best practice", and missed seeing the pivotal role that leader behaviors play. Most importantly, they missed the fact that AAR-ing must be a cycle.

In a Harvard Business Review issue on The High Performance Organization, Signet authors described exciting discoveries about the AAR practices of the U.S. Army’s OPFOR. (The Opposing Force is what Army units must face in battle at the Army's National Training Center). HBR’s Executive Editor described the OPFOR as very likely “the world’s premiere learning organization”. For further reading about this, you might purchase a copy of Learning In The Thick Of It at HBR's site, and there are many publications you can download from this website.

While many have written about the AAR, no other authors uncovered the dynamics of the process as have Marilyn Darling and Charles Parry. Those of us who see the value of the AAR will well appreciate their contribution to the field of learning.
— Director, Defense Education, Reserve Officers Association

Though most organizations recognize the ever-increasing pervasiveness of change, relatively few have grasped the opportunity available in fully embracing change. The OPFOR is an organization that made this leap and, in the crucible of literally thousands of battles, worked out the implications in how they lead, learn and execute. This organization built a capacity to create and sustain competitive advantage in the face of rapidly changing conditions. The result is two decades of a truly amazing track record of OPFOR humbling world-class competitors who would love nothing better than to decisively crush them.

ARC's success in the corporate world

Signet has succeeded in distilling and formalizing the essential elements and sequences necessary to efficiently apply this cycle in civilian settings—validated by working with a broad range of organizations apply ARC to business mandates:

  • Build an executive team’s capacity in mergers and acquisitions
  • Improve budget and schedule performance on large projects
  • Raise the bar in operations against key performance metrics
  • Streamline costly and complex processes such as maintenance outages
  • Get Lessons Learned to stick
  • Prepare effective emergency response to likely scenarios
  • Create conditions that unleash workforce buy-in to continuous improvement
In outline form, ARC consists of three principal elements. First, communicating a clear “leader’s intent” (situation, task, purpose, end-state, guidance) to inform planning. Then, plan in hand, a Before Action Review (BAR) efficiently verifies alignment on the intent and plan, anticipates challenges, and establishes an agile stance for execution. Following the action (or periodically throughout it), AAR meetings dig into gaps between intended and actual results in order to identify causes - and commit to key “sustains” and “improves” for the next period of action. This cycle fuels learning and accountability by testing plans, assumptions and execution against actual results. ARC

Here is an example of Signet's success in tailoring the Army’s approaches for corporate use: To bridge some military-specific methods that fill out the Army's AAR cycle over to the time-limited business context, we developed the “Before Action Review” (BAR). The BAR builds a key habit - briefly pausing to synchronize intent and plan before going into action. Used together, the BAR and AAR “book-end” units of action–assuring alignment, accountability and learning, and setting an upward spiral of effectiveness into motion. Action Review Bookends

In situations where adaptability and resiliency is essential in execution of a complex project, we show teams how to use a version of the Army’s habit of conducting walkthrough rehearsals as part of their due diligence. These “Rehearsal” BAR's, unlike traditional scenario planning sessions, are close to the action and immediately build a strong “line of sight” — and a strong shared ownership for results.

Yes, you can build an AAR culture

Signet has a great deal of practical experience in showing leaders pathways to address a current business situation while simultaneously building learning into their organization’s way of working.

Please see our fact sheet for more information about how we transfer the skills of the Action Review Cycle. To help organizations use ARC to shape the conditions for agility, accountability and continuous improvement, Signet provides a complete package of services (assessment, facilitation, training and leader support).'s startling how little of the army's integrated approach to learning has carried over to the business world. Perhaps as the army's experience becomes more visible, the benefits of an integrated approach will be clearer, and more organizations will begin to follow this example.
— Peter Senge, in The Dance of Change

To further explore the possibilities for your organization, or if you have any questions about AAR/ARC, please contact us using this link.

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