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AARs (After Actions Reviews)

AARs, or “After Actions Reviews” for those people that don’t speak pirate, is a fantastic tool to use in any company or organization.

They allow teams to take the time to retrospectively review their own performance and find room for improvements, all without the usual bullshit finger pointing for the things that inevitably didn’t go to plan. In other words, they are a no judgement way to improve any process within a project or organization as a whole.

The key reason why we do them at Mäd is that they allow us to continuously improve our processes, which results in significantly higher quality work.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” ~ Albert Einstein

We also realize that the people who work in our teams *are* fallible, they are human beings after all, and so being able to review how a project went in a non judgemental way is key.

So, normally the week following the completion, hopefully not later than that, we gather the entire project team for an hour and go through the AAR process, which is deceptively simple, but really effective.

The Process

The team then ideates by posting one thing that didn’t work in the project on one sticky note - issues, roadblocks, process problems, delays, any pain points that were felt, no matter how small! This is done in silence for around ten to twenty minutes, depending on the project size. Nothing is off bounds here, the team can point to issues caused by other team members, by the contracts, by the client, by the software we use, the processes, and so on.

While this is happening, the facilitator is reviewing the sticky notes and is preparing “categories of problems” based on what he or she sees that is being written down across the room.

The categories for an agency like us are almost always the same:

  • Design
  • Development
  • Admin
  • Project Management

When focusing on these four categories we can completely cover every aspect of the project as a whole in most of the cases. There are some cases in which a 5th or 6th category can be added.

Once the ten to twenty minutes is up, each team member goes to the board and sticks their sticky notes up, and gives a brief overview of the problem, and places it in the correct category. Importantly, no solutions are discussed at this stage, we are just defining the problem.

Then each team member is given stickers to vote on what they believe is the most critical issue that we should avoid next time and look to fix right away.

The facilitator then takes the most voted issues and arranges them in a row, and then solutions to each of these critical issues are then discussed and one sticky note is added for each solution. There may well be multiple solutions for one issue or multiple steps to reach that solution!

Then, the most important part of the process happens, in which next steps are clearly defined with timeframes, and someone is assigned them to ensure that the solutions that have been discussed are permanently fixed. A great way to do this is to assign them to someone who can take care of the issue from its core. For example, if it is a development issue the best one to fix that is either the project lead or someone in the development team, while a contractual issue would be assigned to the management team. It is also important to document all the changes and notify any specific team members of any change to the procedures that have come from the AAR, in order to keep the improvement constant throughout the organization.

The facilitator, who has also been taking minutes, will then spend ten minutes to make a quick write up, check it with the team, and then email the whole company with a summary.

The final session is then spent at looking at what worked during the project. There is no voting on this, just a list of things and a small celebration on the things that we’re doing well!

Emanuele Faja

Emanuele Faja

CEO at Mäd. Emanuele brings on board a passion for minimalist Italian design and a 21st-century management approach. He consistently helps clients create and maintain market leader positions.

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AARs (After Actions Reviews)
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