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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

It's after the action. Here's how to write the review.

The military has perfected a few things over the many years of its storied existence, and one of those happens to be paperwork. You don’t always think about the military as such, when the movies show the glories and brutalities of

battle. There is little footage of the mounds of papers that go along with each of those actions.

Going to the rifle range? That will be several orders (warning, operations, maybe a fragmentary), requests for ammunition, requests for the range, and so on, and then after it’s all done an After Action Review.

Going to teach a combat medical course? That will be a training plan, more orders, other equipment requests, and again afterwards, there is the After Action Review.

Indeed, very little in the military happens without paperwork. And regardless of the operation or the mission, at home or abroad, it always closes out with an After Action Review (or AAR, as we like to shorten everything to three letters or less). It is sometimes as simple as getting together in a group immediately following the event, or as formal as each participant writing down bullet points for submission to the command. But there is no occasion when it is skipped.

The reason is that the military believes strongly in feedback, and in iterative improvement (ignoring recent uniform debacles for now…). Each time an AAR is completed, the feedback is designed to improve, at least incrementally, the next instance of a similar mission. When looking at the civilian world, it becomes clear quite quickly that workplaces could implement this practice easily. There are four critical elements we never missed:

What was supposed to happen. Someone, not always the leader, restates the group’s mission, such as “Move to the range, have everyone safely qualify, move back from the range.” There is usually a little more detail, but such is the general idea. It is always good to start out a discussion with a reminder of the original purpose, as that is the metric against which the outcomes are measured. A simple statement such as “Conduct a product meeting with the development team and find a solution to this new issue” will suffice.

What actually happened. Next, the discussion moves to quick input from the group on what they saw actually happen. “We got to the range efficiently, but then we got there and Private Snuffy dropped his magazine and missed three extra targets, so he didn’t qualify today.” This compares what was supposed to happen with what everyone saw happen. Sort sentences from participants yield a range of different perspectives. “We had the meeting and we solved the problem” might be an answer, but so might “We only solved a coding portion and we need to test it for other bugs, so I wouldn’t call it solved.” Different members of the team will yield different perspectives, so collect more than one opinion of what they feel happened.

What went right (Sustains). Common structure in the military would be to give three things to sustain for the next time, or to list what went right. “No one got injured at the range” was always a nice one, but more substance is better. “The route we took back from the range allowed us to move as a group instead of getting stuck at the light like last time.” “The range we used had finally cleared the brush pile from lane 12, so we could actually see the 300 meter target for the first time in probably years.” Again, three is not a hard number, but usually a minimum because no matter what the situation, there are always positive points to capture and review. These can be shared for next time to make for a better experience. “Tom brought his laptop into the meeting to test the code right there, so we could all see it in action.” “Jill has more experience with some complex systems and was able to construct a work-around we wouldn’t have thought of.” So bring the laptop, and someone with diverse experience, to the next project group. But write down everything that was good, as you never know what might be important later.

What could be improved. Those positives also help offset the final portion which no one really likes to hear: the constructive criticism. Stating them as three “improves” instead of as “went wrong”, however, encourages the group to see a clear path to solving the differences between what was supposed to happen and what actually happened. “Next time, we should identify who hasn’t held the rifle in a few months and make sure they do a quick refresher on magazine changes to avoid dropping anything.” Be specific, address problems, and provide solutions. No general complaining is allowed. This keeps everything fair and equitable, and keeps anyone from getting personal or feeling personally attacked. The military tends to do depersonalization well as a general rule, but in terms of feedback it really excels because every point is based on a specific event and is being solved. Even for personal performance reviews, this method helps immeasurably for people to understand that it is in their best interest to improve, and without coddling them. “Next time there is a meeting, more than one person should be specifically assigned to bring a computer so we can run simultaneous solutions," or if in a direct review, “Your problem solving, which has been slower recently, might be improved if you bring your laptop into meetings to help you learn more complex coding the others are using." It provides a solution, makes it about the problem and not the person, and this is critical for a better workplace as well as better company missions.

Nothing ever goes as planned, and nothing ever runs completely perfectly or even completely imperfectly. By identifying the differences between intent and outcome, and then naming a roughly equal number of things that went right and the things that could go better next time, the AAR quickly move through the feedback process by telling a quick story with highlights that preserves valuable input for next time.

The military is a bureaucracy, and with that comes systems of paper that allow it to move forward like at least a decently-oiled machine. I had many improves during my tenure there. For that reason and many more, the AAR is one thing I’d definitely like to sustain in the civilian world. Elana Duffy is co-founder and COO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. Working with everyone from authors to Fortune 500 companies, we provide a range of writing, editing, and training services. Lana is also a veteran of the US Army, a masters of engineering graduate, and a freelance writer in NYC. She is the co-author of the first in the Present Tense “singles” short ebook series, 10/10, for sale on Amazon and other major retailers.

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