Learn in the Thick of It
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Learning "in the thick of the action"

On the face of it, the After Action Review is the simplest of practices. A team gathers after a significant action, and compares what they intended with what was actually achieved as a frame for identifying what they will sustain and improve going forward.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Learning In The Thick Of It, Signet researchers described the AAR practices of a nimble, winning organization (OPFOR) which arguably may be the "gold standard" for organizations that learn as a strategic advantage. We then reviewed the experiences of a range of companies as they attempted to build "lessons learned." The companies that succeeded did not simply use AARs as a tool for gathering lessons. Rather, they understood the AAR as an element of a cycle that ties leading, learning and execution together – an integration that strengthened their ability to sustain success in a fast-changing competitive environment.

You can purchase the article at HBR’s site. Alternatively, if you're willing to take a minute to share with us how you're thinking of using AARs, you can request an educational copy from the authors. For further reading, you may want to browse the related publications provided (most can be downloaded at no cost) on this site.

Making this work in your organization

The simple disciplines of AAR cycles strengthen and integrate learning, leading and execution—in the course of doing normal work just a bit differently. That Emergent Learning approach makes Action Review Cycles (ARC) a very powerful way to organically reshape the culture of your organization toward ever greater accountability, coherence and resilience.

But getting teams there - using AAR cycles on an ongoing, sustainable basis - does require some expertise and an investment of time and energy. When the real purpose and practice of AARs is not properly understood, it leads to over-investment in the wrong things and under-investment in the right ones. Worse, it can lead to teams justifiably feeling that AARs are just checking a box and a waste of their time. If your aim is to embed a sustained capacity to excel across your operations, it is essential to understand the art and the science behind the tools, such as why the AAR meeting must be part of a cycle. That’s where Signet’s years of research and practice come in. We would be pleased to explore with you how we might assist your organization.

“That sounds great, but wait - we’re NOT the Army…”

True enough. Few organizations have a culture that goes back 200 years, are able to provide the level of time and resources the Army normally devotes to training, or have lives on the line in the same way that the Army does!

On the other hand, many organizations have advantages that the Army does not.

Signet surveyed and held dialogues with early adopters in a wide range of organizations to understand their experiences in adopting AARs: Their assumptions, disappointments, barriers to learning, and early successes. We looked carefully at on-ramp questions. For instance: Do you need a climate of trust and openness before you can make AARs succeed - or do AAR cycles create an atmosphere of candor themselves? How do leaders and their teams make the time to hold AARs? How do you get to a deeper level of learning? How do we assure that a Lesson Learned is actually learned? How do we disseminate lessons learned from one team to the rest of the organization? Can AARs shift the culture of an entire organization?

Our years of study, translation and practice with the AAR regimen has given us a deep understanding of how the AAR evolved over decades of daily use at its source, what it takes to make it work in civilian organizations, and what kinds of results, choices and challenges to expect along the way.

The impact of the AAR cycle is both pragmatic and cumulative. AARs build and validate insights based on results, which, in turn, translates into agility - the ability to excel in any conditions.

Signet's expertise speeds up the transition to a learning culture

An organization’s culture is not transformed overnight. Introducing AARs in a way that the practices take root is a bit of an art that we have refined over years of practice in a wide range of conditions. We work with leaders of operational, project, functional and executive teams—through design consultation, workshops, leader coaching and direct facilitation. Together, we:

  • Identify the places that will return results - and metrics for tracking performance
  • Decide when and how often to conduct AARs, BARs (and possibly Before Action Rehearsals)
  • Foster openness, trust and personal accountability for learning
  • Set the stage for learning to occur from the outset
  • Link past lessons forward to impact today’s results

Senior leaders play a crucial role in shaping the climate – by their willingness to acknowledge mistakes, take action on lessons, and fast-tracking subordinates who do the same. We support senior leaders in building the expectation in word and deed that “We are an organization that holds itself accountable for learning.”

For senior teams, we may provide an Alignment Session - to move from vision to execution on the most compelling opportunities to create immediate and long-term competitive advantage. These sessions result in a set of resourced priorities with metrics on where to use the AAR cycle to improve results.

Is your organization prepared to win in the thick of changing conditions? We provide a (free) one-page on-line Agility Assessment that we encourage you to use as a conversation-starter about agility. It will allow you to quickly and privately benchmark your organization against the world-class standard, then compare perceptions with your colleagues - or use to garner support from above in raising the bar on your organization's agility.

Consider a Signet site visit as a way to get started

A site visit is an efficient way to explore the fit between Signet’s approach to using AARs to build competitive advantage and the specific challenges, objectives and vision of your organization - all while getting started. Over the course of a two day visit, Signet will present you with our research findings on After Action Reviews and how linking leadership, learning and execution builds a poweful competitive advantage. We meet with stakeholders in order to understand their specific needs, answer their questions and any concerns, offer advice on how to apply the AAR cycle, and share the experiences of other organizations as they have traveled down the AAR adoption path. A site visit also serves to educate us as to your culture and key players so that we all hit the ground running if you choose to invest in a complete program. Let us know if you would like to explore what a site visit might do for your organization.

If you are ready to jump in with both feet, Signet can provide a complete on-ramp to an ARC culture. Please contact us for further information about how we can support your success.