The US Army’s Secret to Building a Leader-Driven, Learning Culture: After Action Reviews

Dr. Robert Ivany, Major General, US Army (retired)

Trust remains the bedrock of a successful organization. I have led Army units in combat, served as a university president and sat on corporate and not-for-profit boards. Regardless of the type of organization or environment, I have found that when colleagues, employees, management and board members trusted each other, their organization thrived.

But building trust that promotes continuous learning and a collaborative culture can be challenging. A process that recently has gained increased attention among corporations sprang from an unlikely organization that made a remarkable comeback from daunting challenges.

In the 1980s, the United States Army faced a major task to rebuild its forces into cohesive fighting units in the wake of the Vietnam War. Wracked by drug abuse, racial strife, poor morale and a decline in confidence, the 200-year-old U.S. Army embarked on a widespread rebuilding effort to change its culture.

Undaunted by obstacles, Army leaders instituted widespread changes in doctrine, tactics, leader development and training. In order to reap the benefits of a far more demanding training regime and the investment of considerable human and material resources, they instituted an innovative method of learning: The After-Action Review.

Since then, many companies have adapted it as well. “The AAR has become engrained in our culture,” says Mark Ronk, head of Learning, Organizational Development and Talent Management at Nestle USA. “AARs help us get to the root cause of issues and allow us to fix them quickly. The process has become institutionalized over the past 12 years or so. It has evolved down to the user level with the results shared throughout the company.”

At the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at the Thayer Hotel at West Point, New York, a faculty of former Army leaders, including myself, routinely teach AAR techniques to corporate leaders, with great results.

For those who are new to the After-Action Review concept, here’s an introduction:

Culture Shock

The AAR began as a simple process used to reap the “lessons learned” from training exercises, most notably those conducted at the National Training Center in the Mohave Desert. The AAR addressed four key questions:

  • What was the goal of the operation?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • Most importantly, how do we improve our next operation?

Tension often ran high during AAR’s—especially if the operation failed. It required brutal honesty from participants and stood the previous review process on its head by soliciting input from the lowest ranking soldier and quickly integrating each “lesson learned” into future operations.

For the US Army, it was a significant cultural shock. The preeminence of rank, age and established doctrinal methods were the foundation of the organization. Now, AAR’s made the generals and colonels sit and listen while the lieutenants and sergeants commented on how and why battles were won or lost.

Results astounded even skeptics. The Army and eventually the U.S. Armed Forces, became far more effective learning organizations as leaders at every level integrated the valuable lessons into their next operation and into their long-range training plans. Battlefield victories in theaters from Panama, Kuwait, and Iraq, to Afghanistan demonstrated a fighting force that improved with every campaign.

The use of AARs expanded to other aspects of Army life. Leaders began to conduct AARs for activities from unit picnics to parades. Unrelenting honesty and a willingness to listen to junior members of the team encouraged trust between soldiers and their leaders. Soon the improved environment engendered a collaborative culture more receptive to change.

It was not long before the AAR migrated to the corporate sector. The innovation raised considerable attention. Harvard Business Review offered a case study on its use and with other journals, published articles highlighting its potential to improve business practices. Major corporations began to use the AAR when former military leaders joined their management teams or boards of directors.

How to AAR

The flexibility and adaptability of the process attracted corporate leaders. AAR’s could be formal or informal. Major initiatives required formal AAR’s with careful planning, preparation and execution. During the planning phase the team leader set the time and place for the AAR and identified a facilitator and recorder.

Facilitators are critical. Typically respected members of the organization, they are not directly involved in the activity under review. The recorder, meanwhile, captures the lessons learned and changes for future operations. He or she then disseminates these results throughout the organization for everyone’s benefit.

Careful preparation is critical especially when reviewing complex operations.  The team leader will review the goal of the operation, gather the facts on what actually occurred and disseminate them to the team prior to the meeting. He or she makes every effort to include AAR participants from all levels of the activity under review. In this way, the AAR benefits from different, diverse insights.

Lastly, during the execution phase, the team meets in a quiet space with the goal and facts in hand. With the help of the facilitator, they engage in answering the four critical questions: What was our goal, what happened, why did it happen and how do we do it differently?

Experienced facilitators become adept in “peeling the onion” of an activity. Very often there are factors at play and events impacting the outcome of an initiative which many participants may be unaware. Bringing these to light in a constructive manner is the mark of good facilitator and a trusting team.

The team must engage in a focused, frank and inclusive discussion. Together, they discover the three most critical actions that contributed to positive results of the activity, and should be continued, and the three which hindered the operation and should be eliminated. Lastly, they agree on three changes in procedure, process or policy necessary for improved future performance. A group may decide on more than three “lessons learned” in each category.

More lessons, however, often become unwieldy and overwhelm the organization. If the lessons and recommendations impact other groups or the entire organization, the recorder disseminates the “lessons learned” in shared format.

What’s Most Important

Successful implementation requires one essential element: the courage to be honest. My MBA students at the University of St. Thomas in Houston impressed this fact upon me. For several years, I taught a class on the impact and implementation of the AAR. Most of my students were employed in small businesses, large energy corporations and entrepreneurial ventures.

I opened the class by describing how the AAR works using examples from military and business settings. We later discussed its benefits and how the students might introduce such a process within their organizations. When I asked how many believed that the AAR could improve productivity and promote a collaborative culture, nearly everyone raised their hand.

Then, reminding them that I was a guest lecturer who did not impact their grades, I asked, “How many of you would like to see the AAR implemented within your organization?” I was surprised to see less than half of the students raise their hands. Inquiring further, I pressed them on their reluctance.

What followed was revealing. They answered, nearly in unison, “Do you really expect us to be honest in this kind of a review especially if we are examining a failed marketing or high-profile initiative? We would never risk making such an admission in front of our peers or superiors.”

My next question typically brought about a thoughtful silence: “Do you really want to remain in an organization in which you cannot be truthful?” I appreciated my students’ dilemma.

Honesty under pressure challenges all of us. I have found that an authentic leader can dramatically encourage honesty. AAR’s become even more rewarding when the leader admits that his or her guidance to the team lacked clarity, provided too few resources or failed to allot sufficient time for the project. Team members will quickly follow with their own shortcomings and insights when they observe their leader’s humility.

Case Studies

An increasing number of large legacy corporations are using the AAR as an integral part of their business practice to improve and to create cultural change. Shell Oil, Colgate-Palmolive, Harley-Davidson and others are using the process often introduced by former military members.

Stryker Global Services

At Stryker Global Services, a TLDG participant, VP John Haller, uses both formal and informal AAR’s. Haller notes that “the format can be flexible. Some AARs take place immediately after a meeting in the hallway while others are more formal.”  He has found that “informal, short-fuse AAR’s at the worker level has built a culture of trust.” Here in the US,” he says, “we have a marvelous facilitator who has been with us for many years. She is a respected project manager who facilitates discussions and then quickly publishes the lessons learned so that the entire organization benefits.”

Haller has coined a unique motto that impacts everyone on his team. “Pause, reflect, learn is now a part of everything we do,” he stresses. “Regardless of the activity, we give ourselves the opportunity to reflect and learn from each other before moving on to the next event”. “Another advantage of the AAR,” he says is that it “is non-judgmental and works with our teams in Ireland, Switzerland, Germany and France.”

Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals

Edward Feeley, VP for Account Management, Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals faced a major reorganization and cultural shift in 2015. “We wanted to flip a good organization into a great one,” he explained. “So we started bringing our teams to West Point and have benefitted tremendously. The AAR is always one of our top takeaways that we have implemented right away. We are always pushing for constant improvement and the AAR allows us to do so.”

Feeley added: “Recently, we lost a major contract opportunity, so we sat down and “AAR’d” it. We learned how we could improve our future bids and then turned around and soon won an even larger contract.” Feeley believes that his team is now strengthening its institutional culture as a result of the AAR: “We have become more courageous in our attitude, and it has affected employees at all levels.”

Morgan Stanley

Regardless of the type of corporation, AARs have proven beneficial. Morgan Stanley Managing Director Ben Firestein heads offices employing over 500 staff members. He realized that his teams were often “rushing from one initiative to another “diving into future projects without learning from the previous effort. “Now” he says, “we plan AARs at the midpoint and endpoint of projects. In addition, our managers often conduct spontaneous AARs after meetings just to learn more from each other.”

The impact has been impressive. Says Firestein, “The AAR has become a verb! We try to listen to each other, share ideas and, as a result, have become a much more cohesive and democratic group. Our employees have a voice, hold themselves accountable and love working here.”

Pratt & Whitney

Each corporate team adapts the AAR for its unique needs. Matthew Bromberg, President Military Engines at Pratt & Whitney, has found that the process offers significant advantages over previous leadership initiatives. “ I love that the AAR has not become bureaucratized,” he says, “ we use it in different ways to fit our needs. Some AARs last only 10 minutes, others come at scheduled times during major marketing initiatives with notes recorded and disseminated throughout our division. No complicated achievement levels to track, software to update, or lengthy courses to complete.”

The implementation of this process is having a dramatic effect on Pratt & Whitney’s corporate culture. “The AAR has become second nature to us. It has boosted our collaboration and trust. I keep using the process more and more. For example, I have found it to be a great way to coach team members without intimidating them. I can give practical course corrections to participants after listening to a review. It’s been an enjoyable way to build trust within my team and we sometimes network and relax at a local hangout to conduct our own AARs.”

Conclusion

Today, more than ever, corporations face pressure to become profitable on a quarterly basis. At the same time, corporate leaders realize that to achieve long term growth and needed change, they must foster a culture of transparency, integrity and continuous learning. The simplicity, scalability and adaptability of the AAR make it a powerful vehicle to accomplish such a critical task.

As a Vietnam War veteran, I am gratified that a learning process created by the Army to strengthen its combat capability has become a valuable vehicle for leaders to build trust in and within American corporations.

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