Learning about Emergent Learning, Part 3

From Post Mortem to Living Practice and Emergent Learning in Action

February 26, 2004

How do you transform your organization into a change master? Instill After Action Reviews (AARs) as an iterative learning practice. Don’t focus on “lessons learned;” analyze the ground truth in mid-task and at the end of each iteration. Hypothesize about what will happen the next time. Start with the folks closest to the action and iterate up the organization. These are the best practices distilled from the early adopters of AARs at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center, Geerlings & Wade, Harley-Davidson, and Shell Oil.

[(c) 2004 Signet Consulting Group. This article was excerpted from: From Post-Mortem to Living Practice: An In-Depth Study of the Evolution of the After Action Review, by Marilyn J. Darling and Charles S. Parry. First published by the Signet Consulting Group in 2000; Reprinted with Permission by the Patricia Seybold Group, Inc.]


This report is the third in a series about After Action Reviews (AARs). This practice, if inculcated in your organization’s culture correctly, can help it become a more agile culture--one that embraces change. The best practice of AARs can lead to emergent learning--getting better at getting better by weaving learning into ongoing work.

Just doing After Action Reviews won’t turn your organization into a learning organization. You need to instill an AAR culture of learning-as-you’re-doing. Like any tool, AARs can be misused if you treat them as critiques or post-mortems. The organizations that are successful in creating an emergent learning culture use AARs at critical junctures throughout any initiative or project.

For organizations that want to develop a living AAR practice, there are at least three patterns from the stories we have described (in the first two parts of this study)[1] that are worth studying in more detail: localness, forward-focus and iteration.

Localness refers to task proximity. The most successful AARs are conducted with the people closest to the task at hand. The more local the group’s focus, in terms of learning from action, the more directly people are able to connect results to their own decisions and actions. This, we observe, leads to a clearer view of what is actually within their ability to affect.

Forward-focus refers to using the AAR to front-load how you’ll do a similar project the next time around. The leader should prepare his or her team before the job even begins by saying, “I’m going to run an AAR at the end of this thing. I want each of you to take a look at your own particular area and start writing down notes on things you think we can improve as we go along.” When a leader does this, an AAR meeting becomes much more productive.

Iteration refers to seeing learning as an iterative practice--one that feeds information about the process and its results from the first event into the next similar one. An event, such as a sales meeting or a project kick-off, not only must be repeated, but it must be repeated with a punctuation mark in between that helps participants attend to the context, so that insights can feed forward from one instance to inform the next, rather than disappearing in the blur of everyday experience.

The U.S. Army, at its National Training Center (NTC), layers iteration on top of iteration: There are AARs and iterations of AARs at every level of the NTC, and units will sometimes even AAR their AARs. In so doing, we would assert, the NTC has created an emergent learning environment, a system in which learning evolves by feeding back on itself.


“I learned more at the NTC in 14 days than I learned in the previous 14 years of my career.”

--Major General Leon LaPorte, U.S. Army[2]

Beyond “Lessons Learned”

If After Action Reviews (AARs) are to deliver their highest learning value in non-military environments, one of the most fundamental mindset shifts potential adopters must make is to distinguish AARs from the traditional way that learning from experience is conducted in most civilian organizations. Whether it is called a critique, a post-mortem, a retrospective, lessons learned, or an AAR, these are the typical characteristics of the traditional backward-looking process:

  1. It is done once in the life of a project or event, after it is completed (and long after the time when the team has the ability to change what it’s doing to affect the result).
  2. It is mainly initiated after a “failed” project, or as a result of significant levels of intra-team conflict and stress.
  3. Planning for it generally happens after the conclusion of the project or event.
  4. It is a lengthy event with mandated attendance by all project members, often without checking on relevance to their current challenges or workload.
  5. The facilitator often produces a large report which, though it may be used by senior management, frequently is not seen by participants to be relevant to their current projects.
  6. It tends to focus more on dissecting past performance than on planning for future success.

In a living practice, by contrast, AARs typically take place during a project, rather than waiting until after the project is done and people are about to disperse. A living AAR practice pays attention to future actions, not just reflecting on what has happened to date. As LTC (Lieutenant Colonel) Moore describes it, “You get more real learning at a midway point in the project than at the end. What are you going to fix? What are you going to sustain? Same conditions. Same team. ‘We’re part way through the project. We’re behind schedule. We’re over budget. How do we fix this?’ Now you’re starting to take the AAR process to a new level, so that it can give you real feedback--real material improvement.”

A Focus on Improvement over Time

The biggest difference between these two extremes can be found in the intention for reviewing the event. Is the intent to assemble the facts for an accurate record of what happened--or is it to ..

1) See “Learning about Emergent Learning, Part 1,” February 12, 2004, http://www.psgroup.com/doc/products/2004/2/BP2-12-04CC/BP2-12-04CC.asp, and Part 2, February 19, 2004, http://www.psgroup.com/doc/products/2004/2/BP2-19-04CC/BP2-19-04CC.asp.

2) Pascale, Richard, “Fight, Learn, Lead,” FastCompany, Aug./Sept., 1996.


Sign in to download the full article


Be the first one to comment.

You must be a member to comment. Sign in or create a free account.