Keeping an After Action Review from Going Wrong

They NEVER refer to each other by name or call sign. It’s always third person like “the lead fighter” or the “wing fighter”. This is a great way to keep egos in check.
Chief officers can set the positive example in an after action review by first starting with themselves. (Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department photo)

By Dave Rosenberg, CPBA|CPDFA, Principal of Locked On Leadership, LLC

The most powerful tool in a chief’s repertoire, if used correctly can make your companies more efficient and save lives.  If, however, this tool is either left in your bag, or worse still, not deployed properly, you risk lives, the lives of the men and women under your command and possibly the civilians, whose property and lives you are committed to protect.  Unlike any other piece of gear, this tool is available for use by battalion commanders.  The tool in question is the After-Action Review or AAR.

After-Action Reviews started in the U.S. Army during World War II.  The U.S. Army expanded from 174,000 soldiers in 1939 to over 11,000,000 by the end of the war in 1945.  The rapid expansion meant that the Army had to find a way for inexperienced soldiers to learn quickly from veterans.  After-Action Reviews that looked at what happened, why it happened, and how it could have been done better were the answer.  After-Action Reviews should not be confused with an After-Action Report.  The former is a verbal debrief conducted by the participants with the sole intention of learning while the latter is a report, from one person, usually the CO, to their superior and solely includes what happened, without the analysis.

How AARs Can Go Wrong

Unfortunately, in the fire services, all to often, After-Action Reviews are used to either deflect or cast blame; or they are soft-pedaled so that no one gets their feelings hurt.  Neither of these two scenarios are effective. In fact, they are both dangerous in their own right.

Let’s look at the case where we soft-pedal the review.  This is an understandable reaction.  After all, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.  In many departments, you are living together for days at a time so there is a natural tendency to want to reduce tension and stress and pointing out where something went wrong may have the opposite reaction.  This is a poor excuse for not being candid.  Military deployments can be a year or longer with people living in much more stressful environments than a fire house.  Yet the Army still holds AARs and they have a culture that demands candor.

On the other hand, we have the case where the AAR becomes a blame game.  While on the surface, this may appear to be on target, after all, we are pointing out what went wrong, people tend to get defensive when they are blamed for failures and that makes it difficult to learn.  Instead, we tend to justify our decisions and cast the blame elsewhere.

In either case the result is we fail to learn from our mistakes. 

Holding Effective AARs

In order for an After-Action Review to be effective, participants must check their ego and allow themselves to be vulnerable.  This is not easy but it is possible and it takes courage here are some simple tips to create a culture that learns from its past.

  1. Lead by example — if you want others to admit to their mistakes, we must first own our own.  If you want your captains, lieutenants, and engineers to admit to their own errors, you must model this behavior.  This lets them know that you are human and fallible.  Of course, they already know this so that won’t come as a shock.  By doing this you let them know that it’s OK to make a mistake as long as we are willing to learn from it.
  2. Don’t point out other’s errors — this is a challenge.  It is tempting to say “You messed up and should have done xxxx” but avoid the temptation.  Instead, learn to be Socratic.  Ask questions that reveal the thought process behind a decision and guide your subordinate to see how they could have better handled the situation.
  3. Don’t use names — this is a lesson from the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, also known as Top Gun, that was ubiquitous throughout Navy fighter squadrons.  When debriefing a mission, they NEVER refer to each other by name or call sign.  It’s always third person like “the lead fighter” or the “wing fighter”.  This is a great way to keep egos in check.  It’s one thing to say “the acting Battalion Chief failed to complete a 360” and another to say “Joe failed to complete his 360.”
  4. Have private conversations where needed — although you want to create a culture where everyone owns their own mistakes, that won’t always happen.  If, while guiding someone to self-assess a mistake they refuse to “see it”, don’t point it out in a group setting.  They will only become more entrenched in their position.  Instead, talk to them privately and find out what is keeping them from drawing the conclusion you have.  This is a great opportunity to point out that they can save lives by candid so others don’t fall into the same trap.

Once you start holding effective AARs you will discover another bonus.  They become a tool to quickly and easily see who is ready for advancement.  Who has the ability to learn and grow, who has everyone’s best interest at heart, and who still needs to work on their leadership skills?

If you don’t have a history of effective AARs this isn’t going to change overnight.  It will take time for your subordinates to trust that you have their backs.  However, if you are consistent in your approach and sincere in your desire to learn from mistakes and not look for blame.  In fairly short order they will come around.

Dave Rosenberg

As a former Naval Officer and President of several companies, Dave Rosenberg understands the difficulties of managing tasks and personnel. Now he is on a mission to replace TGI Friday with TGI Monday. Dave is the founder and principal at Locked On Leadership, a consulting firm that focuses on practical tactical leadership skills that create high-performance, self-directed teams. He is the author, Locked On Leadership: The Tactical Business Guide to Creating a Culture of Consistency, Courage, and Caring”, a Certified Professional Behavioral and Driving Forces Analyst and has worked with over 100 companies in 13 states arming them to achieve sustained and managed growth.

No posts to display