The project team were celebrating their success and wanted the learning too.

The standard “Worked Well / Better If” was okay, yet the real insights came when they asked the question: “What was supposed to happen?”

Changes didn’t happen, though, without adding a clever new 5th question.

Here, red10 ‘s Sarah Barber shares a world-class approach to both tease out and apply learning.

The Standard Learning Review

When there’s no little or no history to the team or project, or when time is short, you can’t beat the standard learning review questions such as:
“Worked Well / Better If”

But there’s several downsides to just using the standard approach:

  1. We, as human beings, have an amazing ability to re-write the past to make the narrative more acceptable to ourselves. This removes important opportunities to learn.

  2. We don’t easily see how or where we could apply any learning that we do discover.

This is where After Action Reviews, with their new addition, come into their own…

After Action Reviews (AARs)

For many years, AARs have been considered the gold-standard approach to conducting a Learning Review.

AARs were first conducted in the US Army to help troops learn after a training exercise. Involving all the participants, from the lowest-ranking soldiers, to commanders, to interested outsiders and observers, it allows participants to focus on the goals and results to discover what happened and why, rather than to judge success or failure.

With their practical approach, underpinned with good research, it’s not surprising that Harvard Business Review reported on the process spreading far beyond the military into business and the public sector.

Conducting AARs in practice

Having gathered the participants, a positive climate is set as people are reminded that the objective is to seek learning, not culprits. The US Army asked everyone to participate equally with their ground rule “Leave your stripes at the door”.

It is important to approach the AAR with a positive approach to learning from mistakes. When asked about the long path to the invention of the lightbulb, Edison is quoted as saying “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

A classic After Action Review asks four questions –

  1. What was supposed to happen?

This step establishes what the plan was, or what the intended results were.

2. What actually happened?

This step establishes what results were obtained, what events occurred and how people responded to them.

  1. What were the reasons for the difference?

This step is a comprehensive exploration of all the possible reasons why things did not go according to plan.

  • What can we learn? (What should we keep doing? What could we change?)

During this step important best practices are captured, and hypotheses are generated about what we could do differently in future that might improve results.

The New 5th Step

In my experience, AARs conducted when a drug development project closed allowed the team to celebrate their successes and gave team members some learning to take forward. But organisational learning really happened when a team member said something like “Hey, I know that Project X is also considering using this endpoint in their clinical trials, let’s make sure we tell them what we have learned.” This is the 5th step eloquently described by Donald Clark as “Experiment”.

Learnings are hypotheses about what we could do differently next time. If teams identify upcoming opportunities to test these hypotheses in other projects, the lessons learned get put to good use, rather than being forgotten.  Furthermore, the learning cycle begins again as the next team tries the new approach and learns from the results obtained.

The AAR+ Process