To Learn from Experience, Perform an After Action Review

Christopher Witt —  September 12, 2012

IDEA MAN iStock_000017496132LargeIt’s often said that experience is the best teacher. But it isn’t true. Experience, by itself, doesn’t teach anything. Experience makes it possible to learn. Nothing more.

You can learn from experience, to be sure, but only if you actively engage and reflect on it.

I help government contractors make oral proposals on multi-million dollar, multi-year programs. The companies I work with invest months of time and huge sums of money to create first a written proposal and then an oral presentation. They often compete against four or five other firms. Only one firm can win the contract, which means that four or five firms will lose out. If they don’t learn from the experience, they’ve wasted the time and money they invested in the effort.

I meet with each firm’s team after their oral proposal to debrief the experience and to help them learn from it. The process I use — called an After Action Review — isn’t my own. It isn’t even sophisticated. But it works. You can adapt it to any project — a presentation, proposal, project update, or the like — that you or your team have completed.

An after action review (AAR) is a structured review or de-brief process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better, by the participants and those responsible for the project or event.”
(source: Wikipedia)

To Learn from Experience: Perform an After Action Review

Gather the main players in the event, the participants and anyone who has knowledge of it and a stake in it.

Make it clear that the purpose of the After Action Review is not to find fault or to assign blame, but to learn from the experience and to improve future performance.

Ask these four questions:

  1. What was planned? What did you expect or hope would happen?
  2. What actually happened? (Narrate the sequence of events. Describe the facts of the situation.)
  3. Why? How do you explain the difference between what was planned and what happened?
  4. What can you learn from this experience? How can you do better next time?

And here’s the important thing: Write a report. Post it someplace (e.g., the company’s Intranet) where you and other people can access it in the future.

Do you use any type of process to learn from your experience? If so, how does it work?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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