RAAR! Rapid After Action Review, Part I: What, Why, When, and How

Jun 14, 2021 by Christine Murphy Comments (0)

This blog is Part I in the two-part series on Rapid After Action Reviews (RAARs). Part II (coming soon!) explores the real-world successes and challenges of conducting RAARs with USAID offices and teams.

Rapid After-Action Review (RAAR) is a quick and easy exercise in collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) that teams can build into everyday work processes. A RAAR is a 1-hour facilitated discussion with a simple, structured note-taking template designed to help a team not only pause and reflect, but also prioritize specific management actions and timeframes to make change.

Background: Working closely with USAID colleagues to build a culture of data-driven decision making, I’ve often heard that it’s hard to find time to pause, reflect, and adapt. USAID's operational policy encourages CLA at all levels, but staff are likely to be most familiar with mission-wide, time-intensive exercises like Portfolio Review and strategic stocktaking. Team-level CLA often occurs informally as part of routine meetings and management: without explicit planning or documentation, it can be difficult to keep track of, act on, and share the benefits of creative critical thinking. To help colleagues reap the benefits of CLA without a major time commitment, Rapid After Action Review addresses the question, “What could be done in an hour?” 

Why Rapid After Action Review (RAAR)? USAID's official guidance for After Action Review can seem daunting at first glance: "An assessment conducted after a project or major activity that allows team members and leaders to discover (learn) what happened and why, reassess direction, and review both successes and challenges.” Assessment? Major activity? Yikes! This sounds like it’s going to take a while. But with a deep breath and a second look, the underlying structure of an AAR is actually quite simple and straightforward:

-        1) What went well?

-        2) What didn’t?

-        3) What could we do differently?

What makes RAAR different from normal After Action Review (AAR)? With busy colleagues in mind, I designed a template for Rapid After Action Review that condenses these 3 fundamental questions into a 1-hour facilitated discussion, the same length as a standard team meeting.

Each question is discussed for fifteen minutes. Participants are asked to think through not only what went well or didn’t, but why. This small mental shift helps the group focus their feedback on what could be done differently within the team’s manageable interest.

The RAAR template also adds a crucial 4th step in the last fifteen minutes of the meeting: creating a low-stakes but concrete action plan, targeted by participants to the date of their next major decision point. In this way, feedback on what could be done differently is immediately prioritized and operationalized.

Who can use Rapid AAR? As a simple but standardized practice, RAAR can be used by decision-makers at any level to build a culture of intentional, collaborative learning for adaptive management. Strengthening CLA in USAID is often about making informal good practices intentional, systematic, and resourced. Running a RAAR can help ensure that a variety of team members' voices are heard in the decision-making process, as well as reinforce skills in group prioritization and action planning.  

When is RAAR most helpful? A helpful point of entry for CLA using RAAR is the desire to improve repeating events or processes, such as trainings, site visits, or PPR: this means the team can focus action planning on improving the next training, site visit, or PPR. Many offices already collect formal or informal feedback from colleagues on such processes, but may not consolidate feedback in one place or link it explicitly with decision-making. While you can run a RAAR anytime, try for a slot within a week or two of implementation, when the team’s memories will be sharp and important decisions need to be made. If time is limited, consider asking for the hour of an existing team meeting.

How do you do it? Call a 1-hour meeting with your team. Let participants know the structure of the meeting, including and whether they'll be asked to provide feedback in advance. You’ll find example email text in blue at the bottom of this blog post!

Create a copy of the Google doc or Word template (found HERE) for your RAAR and fill in your specific information. Read through the instructions (provided in the template) and think about how best to facilitate your group. If you use Google or another online collaborative platform, you may want to share the document in advance, to help get people’s feedback flowing.

In the meeting, facilitate 15 minutes of discussion for each of the 3 questions and the action plan. Take clear, concise notes, and facilitate to include the voices of everyone at the table. Keep the conversation focused on what successes or challenges are within the team's manageable interest to change. For Action Planning, review your actual notes with the team to identify priority action points, as well as who is responsible to carry them out and by what date.

Want to know more about how USAID teams and offices have put RAARs into practice? Stay tuned for Part II of the blog series – out soon!

Links to existing AAR Resources: USAID's Learning Lab includes USAID After-Action Review Guidance (2012), UNICEF's AAR Guide, as well as a CLA Toolkit resource on Facilitating Pause & Reflect (2018) that includes AAR in a list of many types of adaptive management exercises. For full Program-Cycle guidance on the importance of adapting, see PPL's Discussion Note on Adaptive Management.

Christine is a Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) Specialist. She has supported USAID bureaus and missions with knowledge management and monitoring & evaluation strategic planning since 2016. She is currently serving as a consultant to the Amazonia Regional Environmental Program to develop its multi-country event calendar.