In this week’s episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser takes a look at how to conduct an effective after-action process – or you may call it a Lessons Learned process at your organization.
At Bryghtpath, we believe an effective after-action process is a critical component of learning from a crisis or disruption – enabling you to continue to mature your program and improve preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery for future situations.
Topics discussed include the “hot wash”, structuring your after-action process, meetings, and surveys, leading discussions with survivors and those impacted by a crisis or disruption, and assembling an after-action report.
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Episode #1: Shouldn’t we have a plan for alien invasion?
- Episode #4: The Crisis Team
- Episode #7: After the Storm
- Episode #9: The Hot Wash
- FEMA: Homeland Security Exercise & Evaluation Program (HSEEP)
Hey everyone, welcome back to the Managing Uncertainty Podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, Principal and CEO at Bryghtpath, and hey, I wanted to start off by pointing out that this is our 50th episode of this podcast, and I know we’ve had some inconsistencies in the past in terms of delivering the podcast on a weekly basis, but so far in 2019, we’ve been quite consistent with that, but I just wanted to thank everyone who listens for your support, your encouragement, your comments, and feedback, both good and critical.
All of that helps us be better, but welcome to our 50th episode.
We’re going to be talking about how to conduct an effective after action report or AAR, or sometimes called a lessons learned document.
I just want to start off with some basic philosophy before we get into some of the nuts and bolts about how to do this effectively. My philosophy kind of revolves around four things when it comes to after action reports, and they all have to do with you as the leader and your approach to how you manage this process. It starts with understanding that every crisis situation, every incident that you have is a learning opportunity. It’s a learning opportunity to be better the next time around. That’s the principle reason we do after-action discussions and reports are to understand what worked, what didn’t go so well, and how do we want to improve next time around.
I would tell you based on my personal experience, I’m a pretty good crisis manager. Over time at my previous employer, we built a fantastic team and we dealt with some really difficult and emotional situations around the world. Every single time, even when everything went well from we had good results and nobody got hurt or injured or killed. We got great feedback from the business and we felt like we were clicking on all cylinders, we still had a ton of things that we felt we could do better, and that’s how you get to be good.
That’s how you build a mature and sustainable process for your organization. So, you’ve got to view every one of these incidents or crisis situations as a learning opportunity, a chance to get better.
The second is that you as a leader as you go through this after action process, you’ve got to be comfortable accepting and seeking constructive criticism because even your best folks, even when you do everything, it feels like you’ve done everything right, you can always be better. And so, there are things that you’ll learn during the after-action process that might come across as a little critical, but the point is that these are things that we see that can help you be better. And so, be comfortable seeking that constructive criticism.
The second is as the leader, the best way to do these is to ask a lot of open-ended questions. What are the questions that you want to ask? They should be ones that allow free form answers. You want the folks that you’re seeking their opinion about what went well and what could’ve gone better, you want to ask open-ended questions and then guide them to get deeper into the, what did you see, why do you think that’s an opportunity, what could that look like, and keep digging, keep pushing into that to get to the real answer, to get to ground truth.
Lastly, there’s a realization that you want to walk into this with which is that you’re going to hear some things that you are not going to like. You’re going to hear some things that you’re not going to agree with. You may hear things particularly if you’re talking to survivors or those that were impacted the day of whatever incident or crisis we’re talking about.
You’re going to hear from some folks that are probably pretty pissed off about some things, and that’s okay. Let’s acknowledge that for what it is and keep asking. Don’t get defensive, but keep asking those questions to dig deeper into the after-action process.
So, let’s get into the nuts and bolts here a little bit.
The first thing I want you to do is immediately after a crisis ends and you’ve got your crisis team together, or you’ve got your business continuity team together, immediately after the thing wraps up, conduct a hot wash. By that, I mean you’re going to take 20 or 30 minutes, you’re going to get folk’s immediate reactions to what happened, and the questions I want you to keep focusing around are, what went well, what did we see here that we liked, what didn’t go well, where were there opportunities where we could’ve done better, what should we change or do next time around to be better at this?
So, three questions. What did we like? What do we want to take away from this? What did we not like? What are the opportunities, and then what do we want to change to be better next time around?
Don’t take more than 20 or 30 minutes to do this because the real after-action process and discussion starts later, but you want to capture some of these things while they’re still fresh in people’s minds. You’re going to get more of, I would say typically more of an emotional response, but it’s all going to be true. They will have all have just gone through it, and so you want to capture that right away.
From there, you want to set up some meetings, and a lot of this will just depend upon how your crisis organization is structured, whether you have a crisis management team or you have an executive crisis team. You may have leaders at locations or a crisis team out on the field that works with an enterprise-level crisis team. I’m just going to give you one way of thinking about this, but you’re going to want to conduct meetings or conference calls to seek feedback with individual groups based upon that crisis structure.
For example, I’m just going to talk about a company that has a crisis management team. They got some teams kind of down below that are impacted teams, and they got a group of executives who function as an executive crisis team, but they’re not in the day today. They’re not in the moment by moment with the crisis team.
So, who do you want to meet with?
So, you’re going to meet with the crisis team, crisis management team, the folks that weren’t engaged in that effort. You’re going to have a separate meeting with the executive crisis team and get their understanding of rather those three questions. You’re going to have another meeting with the impacted team, so those field leaders or facility leaders, and then if appropriate, you may want to have a separate discussion with survivors, with those who were directly impacted by an incident in order to get their perspective.
For example, in 2012 at my previous employer, we had a pretty significant after shooter scare that turned out to be a false alarm in a 650,000 square foot office building with about 800 employees in it. Even though they weren’t involved in the response, they were definitely involved in the incident, and part of that after-action process was understanding what was their perspective in terms of communication and physical security efforts and interacting with law enforcement.
And so, we met with them separately several times, several different groups, in order to capture their perspective and incorporate that into our after-action process. You want to look at the same based upon the type of incidents and how your organization is structured.
So, in these meetings, you’re really getting around the same questions. What went well? What’d you see that you liked and you want to capture? What didn’t go well? What were the opportunities? How could we be better? What could we do differently? What do we want to capture as action items for next time around?
Now, you may ask a ton of questions throughout the process, but the themes you’re going to keep going back to are kind of those three buckets, right? As you hear things, I would encourage you to probe into them and learn more. For example, a common thing that I hear early in the maturity of a program is, I just didn’t feel like there was enough communication about what was going on. Okay, great. Great observation. Tell me more. What did you see? What did you see? What communication did you receive? What would you have liked to have seen and when? Like, how frequently and who is it from and what does it contain? You’re not challenging that person. You’re just trying to get to the- Okay, you’ve identified a communication gap. What would you like to see done? What are you really looking to see there in terms of communication that would make you feel like you were more informed, more involved in the process?
When you’re interviewing survivors or you’re meeting with survivors and talking about how something personally impacted them, that’s a much more difficult conversation and one where I think this three-question framework doesn’t really work so well. I would encourage you just to start by asking about their experience. Tell me what happened to you that day. Where were you? What did you experience? From there, ask questions. Again, I would do this in an appropriate manner, but I would ask questions around what did they see, what did they hear, what would they like to have seen done differently, what scared them through the situation? Communication is often a big issue. Certainly was in that incident from 2012 in my own history, but I think it’s a different set of questions because they’re coming at this from a different perspective and you’re going to need to react to that and kind of frame the conversation as you’re seeking to understand their experience and what worked well for them and what did they see as opportunities.
So, we encourage to have these meetings separately because you got a lot of different just competing forces between different groups and there are some power dynamics in play. So, have individual after-action discussions with these different groups. Take copious notes. Capture that information. I would do these between three and 10 days after the incident. You want some time for some perspective to be formed, and then I think you can have those meetings and garner pretty good insight from the teams.
In some cases, we’ve also used surveys. For example, if you’ve got 1,000 individuals that were really impacted, you probably can’t meet with all of them. I would encourage you to do some meetings with some representative groups, but surveys are a good way to capture insight and impact and people’s thoughts through that process. Again, just make sure that you’re asking some open-ended questions in there and not just a lot of yes, no, one through five sorts of things.
Finally, then, you’ve gathered all the information, so it’s time to write the report. I would encourage you to write the report first by outlining the factual observations of what happened. So, this can be your own incident summary. Make sure it’s fully supported by the fact, includes a high-level timeline, but what happens?
So, if it’s a hurricane, you can describe the hurricane path and impact, and the number of impacted facilities, and how long it took to reopen those facilities, the kind of damage experienced, injuries, and fatalities, impact to the team, power outage, and response times. You can kind of think about the factual base. Make sure you include in there your own team’s efforts, the crisis management team’s efforts. The crisis management team met 27 times over a 14 day activation period. They held 21 conference calls, something like that. I’m making the data obviously as I go along.
Then, I would get into the observations of what you heard during the after-action process. What were the documented wins or things that went well from the team? Again, I would encourage kind of a bullet-pointed narrative format for this, and then you get into the opportunities. What are the things that did not go well? Make sure there’s enough detail, so folks understand what those are.
Lastly, the action items or recommendations. The action items need to be clearly defined. I would lump them into categories based upon the incident. For example, categories might include communications. It might include crisis management team actions, executive crisis team actions. I would just organize them in a way that seems logical for your organization structure and the type of incidents or crisis that you’re writing the report about, and then your actual action items should be clearly defined. They should be assigned to a person, not a team, but to a person so they can be held accountable. They should be prioritized in some way that your company uses. It could be one, two, three. It could be priority A, priority B, priority C, and date for delivery. That date doesn’t have to be a precise date. It could be February 2020. It could be Q1 2020, but a date that everyone agrees to.
Once the report’s done and you have vetted it with the right individuals at your company, I would create a brief executive summary that’s one to two pages that would go on top for your executives to read if they don’t want to read the full report, and then a presentation version. Like, what’s the number of slides that allows you to kind of tell the story? I would base this primarily on the executive summary, but depending upon how your team’s working, may want a more lengthy presentation version that gets farther into the details.
Put together, I think this is a very effective after-action process that gets you to the right level of detail but avoids a lot of the bureaucracy and overly complicated processes that many after-action reports require.
That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast about the after-action process.
I hope you’ll join us every Thursday 12 o’clock Central time on our Facebook page at Facebook.com/bryghtpath where we present Bryghtpath LIVE, an online stream of topics related to crisis management, business continuity, disaster recovery, and crisis communications.
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