What The U.S. Army Can Teach Managers About Becoming Better

The goal is to do what you set out to do and do it better each time you do it
The goal is to do what you set out to do and do it better each time you do it
Image Credit: harp chawla

Ok, so I’m willing to admit it – I’m not perfect. Yes, I am always working to try to become perfect, but so far I have not been able to even get close to that goal. Most managers would say that they are in the same boat as me. It’s a bit depressing to set out to try to accomplish something and then despite using your manager skills you basically fail at doing it. When this happens, because there is no manager training for dealing with failure a lot of managers tend to throw their hands up and say “oh well”. It turns out that this is not the right thing to do. Instead, we should all be doing what the U.S. Army does when they have a failure.

After Action Reviews

Most companies understand that their managers will at times fail. That’s why they say things like “take risks!” and “fail forward!” However, if managers are failing repeatedly and doing so in the same way, then there really is no learning going on. What managers really want to be able to do is to develop continuous learning cultures based on military practices–specifically After Action Reviews (AARs), a process for carrying forward lessons learned through experience, which were developed by the Army to ensure units understand and build on past successes and failures.

The good news is that AARs can be adapted to be used in business Two categories of action lend themselves to an AAR. First: activities that are repeated regularly but not often, such as quarterly business status presentations to a team. In between those presentations are three months during which people get fuzzy about what worked, what didn’t, and where they thought they could do better. The second category are new challenges, for which leaders can prepare by running AARs on activities that share some of the same processes.

When performing an AAR, the first order of business is to clarify the “leader’s intent.” Here is where leaders discover how well they’ve communicated their initiatives and whether everyone understands the marching orders. The core of it is to compare what was intended with what actually happened. If you don’t have a clear picture of what was intended, then any comparison is inherently weak. The simplest approach is to ask those who will execute the initiative – typically the manager’s direct reports or function heads – to repeat back what the team will do and why it will do that.

The Right Way To Do An After Action Review

AARs are not a completely foreign concept to businesses. However, a lot of businesses that attempt to use them do a poor job. In most companies that use AARs their HR brings in a third party to facilitate the session. Managers tend to sit in the back of the room, maybe because they don’t want to discuss their own mistakes. Junior people who have little to lose end up sitting in front.

In the Army, by contrast, the senior leader runs the AAR. His immediate reports sit in the first row; and others sit farther back in descending order of rank. The senior leader’s involvement ensures that people leave the meeting with concrete actions for which they’re held accountable. In the AAR the leader restates the intent. Then the team reviews what actually happened compared to that intent: where intent and actions did not line up, what went wrong, and how you can do better. If intent and action did not line up but somehow produced a better-than-expected result, what went right? And how can you do it again?

Managers need to understand that AARs are less about lessons learned – looking back – than about identifying best practices and potential pitfalls for the next challenge. Managers should create a timeline for the action that is under review, then add to it knowledge and insights gained during the AAR for later use. What emerges is a project management guide that says, “This is how we do things like this.”

What All Of This Means For You

Every manager will at some time fail. It’s just something that comes along with our job. It can be all to easy to look at our failures and just shrug and go on. Instead, what we need to do is to learn a lesson from the U.S Army who also has failures but who has developed an effective way to learn from every event no matter if it is a success or a failure.

What the Army does is after any event, they conduct what is called an After Action Review (AAR), These allow the Army to learn from their past actions and then take those lessons forward so that mistakes are not repeated and success can be reproduced. AARs can be used in a business setting especially for things that are done infrequently and for new challenges. A key part of any AAR is to determine if the members of the team fully understood what the manager wanted them to do. Some companies do perform AARs, but often they are done poorly. Managers need to lead the AARs and the people who report to them have to be present and up front. AARs are designed not to lay blame for past failures, but rather to provide a way to look forward and use gained knowledge to do things better.

Managers need to understand that every time they attempt something, it is really a learning experience for both them and their team that can be considered a form of team building. What this means is that once a task has been completed, the team needs to come together and learn from it. AARs provide the perfect way for a team to share their experiences and use their gained knowledge to do better in the future. Managers can use AARs to fail less!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think would be the best way to capture the outcome of an After Action Review?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

If there is one workplace problem that managers want to find a way to solve, it would most definitely be the challenge of disengaged employees. What managers would like to learn how to do would be to understand how to use our manager skills to better motivate employees and how to get more manager training on how to build better relationships with those employees. So the big question is what is the manager factor that is most closely linked to employee engagement? Interestingly enough, the answer turns out to be when employees feel they can trust their manager. As managers, how can we make this happen?