Thursday, November 18, 2004

After Action Reviews

Every firm should implement After Action Reviews as a tool in which they do business. The concept is relatively simple and easy to implement. Some groups like the United States Army honed it into a science. Wonder how come the Army send Apache helicopters into a n Iraqi city and get them torn up and later bungles an assault into Falluja, but does not repeat that same mistake at a later date? The answer to this is AARs. Officers up and down the ranks in each engagement wrote reports that told their version of what happened after each action. They informed central command what went wrong and what went right. Central command pulled these reports together and created common themes to repeat, things that went well, and to never do again, things that went poorly. They then got these things out into everyone’s hands. Not just bad things are AARed. Everything is. The Army is in a constant state of learning and tries very hard not to make the same mistake twice and even harder to make sure everyone knows how to do the right thing based on experience.

So what is an AAR? In its simplest form it is a wrap-up of an action that just occurred. It asks three simple questions and then demands follow-up. The first question sets the boundaries to the discussion, what are we reviewing? The second establishes a positive light on everything, what went well? The last delves into the mistake, what could have gone better? Asking these questions correctly and keeping the meeting from dissolving into a forum for he said she said complaints can be difficult, but can be done. Here are some tips for conducting this kind of review:
  • Use a third party that is familiar with the process, but wasn’t directly involved.
  • Time Box long discussions.
  • Do not allow personal attacks or he said she said situations.
  • Stick to actionable items.
  • Keep everything positive by asking negative questions in a positive way.
  • Leave rank or hierarchy at the door.
  • Get everyone to contribute by directing questions to the quiet ones.
Once the review is done it is time to take action. Items that are actionable within the groups should be assigned and followed up on. Someone should review what is happening in the field to pout best practices in place and to eliminate mistakes that are constantly made. While there are many places that AARs can be inserted into the day to day life of our attorneys, but a few obvious starting points are mentioned here:
  1. Business Development is an obvious starting point. It is amazing to me that I could interview attorneys after losing a deal and they could easily state to me what the client did and didn’t like about them. Yet, these same attorneys didn’t realize that other attorneys lost similar deals for the same reason and took no action to improve in areas that caused them to falter. So, add in AARs after any client facing meeting, presentation, RFP, and Win/Loss. Note what the client likes or liked and be cognizant of what is not resonating well. Now take action at the group level that did the review and pass off the report to the firm. The firm can review these AARs and look for themes like, our clients think we are great Tax attorneys, but think we don’t have great Banking expertise. The action might be to do better in the future to show to clients that we are great at Banking also or if we really aren’t great at Banking plug that gap. Learning why you win or lose business will only strengthen your company.

  2. Next you should implement AARs around Matters. Use a simple phase based or meetings based approach. Break down the meeting using the simple 3 questions and review how the matter phases went under the same model. Things that are working well that can be reused should be moved off to best practice for other groups to learn from and working poorly should be addressed if they can be. Remember, you don’t have to wait until closing to do this. AARs are not Post Mortems that are done at matter closure. They are active meetings that happen continually and help projects move forward.

  3. Finally, develop a pool of people who are good at moderating AARs and create incentives for them to do more of them across the firm. Have them own and guide the process. Have them report trends that they are seeing to executive leadership. Most of all give them the tools and support they need to make this successful.
For more information on AARs and how to do them successfully check out these links: http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/leader/leadaar.html and http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army/tc_25-20/guide.htm.

4 comments:

Tom Baldwin - Chief Knowledge Officer said...

Any chance you could have made this longer???

Mark Keller said...

I could put twisties into your blog site if I had access to edit the style sheet. :-)

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