Making the Case for Reflection at Work: Why After-Action Reviews Are Worth Your Time

Sep 10, 2015 by Learning Lab Comments (0)

This article was written by Elizabeth Futrell, chair of The Knowledge for Health (K4Health) Project's Editorial Board and Content Development Team. The post originally appeared on the K4Health Exchange blog on July 21, 2015.

I went to an urban university that valued “service learning.” During my college years, I spent every Tuesday night tutoring in the men’s division of Cook County Jail. Thursday nights I served dinner and played board games at Bonaventure House, a nearby residence for people living with AIDS. I worked in a low-income community in New Orleans, protested the sanctions against Iraq in front of the White House, taught Head Start on an Apache reservation, and slept in homeless shelters in Juarez.

One Sunday a month, university leadership made us reflect on all this work. Come on, I used to think. Aren’t we already giving enough of our time? Can’t they just let us do our thing without constantly making us rehash it?

Gradually, though, I came to understand the value of reflection. Every time a resident of Bonaventure House died, every time an inmate I had tutored last year reappeared at the jail, I felt like few of my classmates or family members understood the world I was witnessing. I realized how important it was to process these experiences with a community of people doing similar work.

Reflecting with my peers helped me make sense of the world, of other people, and of myself. I like to think that our many guided reflections helped temper me from a naively idealistic, overzealous, bleeding-heart-liberal kid into a more seasoned, thoughtful, compassionate but discerning woman.

Now, in my mid-30’s, where parenting, professional, and household responsibilities allow little time for introspection, I recognize its profound value.

Without reflection, pieces of our experiences are inevitably lost.

In my personal life, this might translate to less vivid memories, limited insight into personal relationships, or inability to account for what I did during my precious free time.

In my work life, failure to reflect can come at great economic and moral cost. Challenges might go unresolved, inefficiencies repeated, lessons learned not applied to the next activity. Some people might feel underutilized while others feel overburdened. We don’t learn as much as we should, and we don’t improve as much as we could.

Systematic Reflection

Reflection. Debrief. After-action review. These are all terms for a structured process in which project teams reflect on an event or task they have just accomplished in order to analyze what happened, and why. What did we set out to do? What did we actually accomplish? If there were differences, what caused them? What worked, and why? What didn’t, and why not?

We carry around the answers to these questions in our heads. But articulating them verbally and recording them on paper can solidify and institutionalize our experiential knowledge and help us share and apply these insights so that we can do better, smarter work. That’s simply good knowledge management.

We at the Knowledge 4 Health (K4Health) Project are integrating after-action reviews into more of our activities. Why?

  • They’re quick and easy. An after-action review only takes 30 to 60 minutes and can be done anywhere — a conference room, a virtual meeting, or even over the phone.
  • They help us learn from our experiences and then apply these lessons in order to accomplish future endeavors more efficiently and effectively.
  • They facilitate the capture and understanding of diverse perspectives.
  • They encourage constructive feedback from and for all participants in order to improve performance.
  • They provide written documentation of successes, failures, and clear, tangible action items for improving performance.

When to Do an After-Action Review

This all sounds great, you might be thinking. But how do I know which of my activities are after-action review-worthy?

When deciding whether to incorporate an after-action review into your process, consider these questions:

  • Did the process go so well that we want to make sure we replicate it?
  • Did we learn valuable lessons from certain choices or mistakes that occurred during the activity?
  • Will my team be doing similar activities in the future?
  • Can others in my organization benefit from our experiential knowledge?
  • Will team members benefit from a structured opportunity to regroup, reflect, and receive recognition and feedback on their actions and contributions?

Some team activities or deliverables for which I’ve recently participated in an after-action review include: a literature review, a whiteboard animation video, a workshop given at a global meeting.

The feedback shared during these reviews helped solidify our internal processes, make changes to improve our team dynamics and deliverables, and open up the lines of honest and constructive communication among team members.

Five Keys to a Successful After-Action Review

1. Invite the right people. After-action reviews should always involve all members of the core internal team who worked on the project or activity. If the project also involved external partners, think carefully about whether to involve them. On one hand, the external perspective can add valuable insight. On the other hand, team members might hesitate to freely share honest feedback — particularly about aspects of the activity that did not go well — with external partners present.

2. Focus on the process and not on the people. After-action reviews are a great tool for examining process and actions, but they are not appropriate venues for appraising a coworker’s performance or venting about interpersonal issues; those should be handled privately by the team lead or direct supervisor.

3. Facilitate effectively. The facilitator can be the team lead, a team member, or an external participant who was not involved in the project or activity under review. The facilitator should set a neutral tone and maintain an open and trusting environment so that everyone feels heard and respected.

4. Engage all team members. Do not allow one or two vocal people to dominate the conversation. Unless everyone, from leadership to administrative staff, shares their experience and perspective, the after-action review will not capture the full picture.

5. Designate a note-taker. Someone other than the facilitator should take detailed notes so that the feedback and insights can be easily accessed later.

A Wise Investment

Investing 60 minutes in an after-action review now can lead to substantial savings of valuable time and energy in the future. It can strengthen team dynamics, communication skills, organizational learning, and morale.

Perhaps most importantly, an after-action review offers us a scarce luxury in the modern adult world: the opportunity to sit still for a few moments and reflect.

See the World Bank’s The Art of Knowledge Exchange for practical guidance and tools for implementing after-action reviews and other knowledge management practices.