Pivot to Your Purpose . . .
When Things Go Right, It’s Good to Know Why

When Things Go Right, It’s Good to Know WhyWhen a customer is dissatisfied with your product or services, you move mountains to figure out why and fix it. If your boss says your latest effort missed the mark, you dig in to learn how things went wrong. But it actually makes as much sense to understand when and where things go right and what and who made that happen.

Using the After-Action Review (AAR) process, you can uncover important reasons why an initiative went well and explore ways to replicate your success, in addition to trouble shooting. It can help you create a safe climate to evaluate results, uncover how particular employees are driving customer satisfaction, share effective techniques more broadly and accelerate learnings and progress with real insights on the actions driving your best outcomes.

Looking back to look forward

Phrases like “Hindsight is 2020” or “Monday morning quarterbacking” are often used in derogatory ways, as if there is nothing to be learned from something that happened yesterday. But to the U.S. Army’s Opposing Force (OPFOR is comprised of the toughest soldiers on the planet), extracting lessons from one event or project so you can apply them to future situations makes perfect sense.

Over the past two decades, the National Training Center that oversees OPFOR has developed a rigorous review process to extract key learnings from every training battle and then apply them to the next challenge. In monthly exercises, the 2,500-member OPFOR consistently wins against forces of nearly twice as many experienced soldiers with more dedicated resources and whose commanders have inside information on OPFOR’s strategies. They credit their AAR process with feeding important learnings back into a critical cycle of execute-learn-revise-execute-repeat.

From battlefield to boardroom

AARs started showing up in corporate use in the late 90s when a retired general on the board of Shell Oil brought the idea in from the battlefield. Over time, it migrated to companies like Colgate-Palmolive and Harley-Davidson as they searched for ways to do more of what was working and less of what wasn’t. The AAR is particularly well suited to the agile start-up world where the concept of test and revise is part of the DNA of many founders. Here’s how to use it.

  • Make it a process, not a meeting. To evaluate results, most organizations gather key players and ask what went wrong. You lead one big meeting, get the issues out on the table, assign tasks and hope you’ve thought of everything and that everyone remembers the new marching orders. That’s a decent start, but focusing only on what didn’t work misses critical information about what did, and can lead you to abandon effective actions in your zeal to address and reinvent everything.

A once-and-done summit also ignores how the situation will continue to evolve as you implement new approaches. That’s why the Army uses more frequent, shorter meetings (more like ten-minute huddles) in its AAR process. You can keep gathering and sharing critical input and feed it back into your execution cycle in real time.

  • Everyone participates. All those who can help identify effective practices or find solutions get involved. OPFOR’s rules for conducting AARs include: Participate. No thin skins. Take notes. Focus on issues. And, leave your stripes at the door. In other words, everyone’s input is valued and expected and leaders will both listen to others and acknowledge their own limitations.
  • Focus on thinking. At every AAR, the group address four key questions: What were our intended results? What were our actual results? What caused our results? And what will we sustain or improve? OPFOR members will strive to correct things that went wrong, but have found the more important objective is to focus on thinking and inaccurate assumptions.

In a business setting, a Before-Action Review can also be used to generate more effective thought processes and set the stage for the AAR to follow. Those questions include: What are our intended results? What challenges do we anticipate? What prior learnings can be applied here? And, what will lead to success in this circumstance?

  • Review, don’t report. The point of the AAR is like a test and revise process. You try something, see what happens and tweak based on the learnings. It’s a living, action-oriented approach. Applying smaller, more frequent AARs with your business’s everyday activities encourages a greater ability to test theories and try new ideas, a process well suited to start-ups. OPFOR does not consider learning to have occurred until a new approach is successfully used in action.
  • Notice what’s right. One of the most powerful aspects of the AAR process is identifying things that worked and why. Pointed questions apply here too: Would the same approach work in a different situation? With a different customer? Under different time pressures? With other staff members? Could it be tweaked to function even better?

Ferreting out your most effective actions can help you do more of what works and help everyone search out important learnings to not only fix problems, but keep raising performance.