You’ve Heard of After Action Reviews. What about Before and During Action Reviews?
Ever been teased for collecting too much feedback? I have - but how else would I know if our work achieved its goal? As an instructional designer, when I start a new training, I work hard to understand the need and find the right solution, but I’ve learned one rarely gets everything right the first time. So why not plan for continuous learning and improvement from the start? One of the ways I do that is by planning for after action reviews – before, during, AND after – to improve my training's design and delivery from the very start.
After Action Reviews Support Existing Learning and Improvement Cycles
So what does that look like for me? I design and deliver training for USAID staff, and there are some basic phases to the work - analysis, design, develop, implement, and evaluate. Sound familiar to any activity? With training and other activities, it can take months or years to really understand the impact. I rely on after action reviews to get feedback more quickly and get as many perspectives as possible.
Before the Training
As the team is forming to kick off a new training project, I like to develop the team norms for giving and using feedback. Often a similar training or activity has already happened, so gathering all of the previous experience and information is a good place to start. This supplements my usual analysis process, by providing insights into the team dynamics, enablers, and constraints of the previous effort that might otherwise be missed. This can be in the form of a more formal Before Action Review. I like to gather all the documented information first, then gather the team together to reflect on the experience and documentation to make sense of it together.
These efforts not only surface important details to guide the training, but also insights that might otherwise have been overlooked about how to organize the work and who to involve. How you go about the conversation is critical and set the norms for your team. I keep the conversations focused on how the team can best achieve its goal, not on problems or assigning blame. Set a good example from the very start!
During the Training
Once I’ve successfully made it through the training activity design and am ready to deliver, I like to include some “during action review” to help ensure we are achieving our goals in real time so we can course correct if needed. It’s terrible to get feedback after the training ends that you missed your goal, especially if you could have easily improved. I consider this a must do. While it works best for multi-day training, it’s still valuable to check in during a break in a shorter training session. I plan for these “during action reviews'' in advance, and they are just part of the facilitation responsibilities. This could be a quick chat during a break, a stand up 15-minute meeting at the end of each day of training, or a more formal 30-minute meeting with written notes. I most frequently use a simple “plus, minus, delta” format - what went well, what did not go so well, what could we change. If a team member can’t make it, have a system for filling him or her in. This could be a buddy system where someone verbally passes on the highlights or emails formal notes.
After the Training
It is the team commitment to learning and improving that makes the after action review (AAR) worthwhile. It requires open and honest feedback from everyone. In addition to feedback from the training facilitators, I also like to bring in feedback directly from the training participants. We invite feedback in writing and verbally each day. Any comments received are shared during the AAR for group reflection. In one course, we even invited the participants to conduct their own AAR to share their feedback with us which offered even more perspectives that were especially valuable.
To make sure everyone involved can attend the post-training activity AAR, I plan for it weeks in advance. I like to schedule it no more than 1-2 days after the training ends. I want to make sure no one forgets anything, but I also want to leave a little space for self-reflection. If it’s not possible to schedule it soon after or if some participants are not able to attend, I provide a shared document with the AAR questions and ask them to write down their reflections in advance of the group meeting so their perspective is still considered.
During this final AAR, I try to get a neutral facilitator that was not part of the training to facilitate. This ensures a more open process and allows everyone to fully participate. I also like to plan the structure of the AAR with the facilitator to customize it to our needs. For the first delivery of the course, I favor the more reflective approach; starting with what did we set out to do, what did we actually achieve, what can we learn from this. This is a good time to remind everyone it was a pilot! Then I like to get into the specific details for different areas of the training (preparation, training content, and logistics) to explore what worked well, what didn’t work well, and what we could change.
At the end of this process, the team has usually reached consensus, and I have a pretty clear list of items to improve for the next version of the training. I continue with AARs as an ongoing part of the training, so we have a cycle of continuous learning and improvement. For a small effort, we get big improvements in the training.
How are you supporting continuous learning and improvement in your work? Do you use after action reviews? What timing and format works best for you? Do you also gather feedback from activity participants and beneficiaries? I’d love to hear from you - leave a comment!
Jen is an instructional designer with over 20 years of experience developing classroom and online training. She enjoys building training programs and collaborating with teams to find solutions to organizational challenges to help people perform their best. She has supported USAID training for PPL, RFS, OFDA and DDI.