Following a major incident or crisis, it’s time to take stock of your plans, processes, and efforts through a thorough after-action process.
In this episode, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jen Otremba talk about the need for after-action processes, the immediate “hot wash” discussion after the end of an incident, and then transitioning into a thoughtful after-action approach that will serve to help mature and enhance your crisis management program.
Bryan Strawser: The boom is over.
Jen Otremba: The event happened.
Bryan Strawser: The event happened. Remember, we had this bad thing, whatever it was. We activated our crisis process. We responded, a crisis team came together and interacted and collaborated and schemed and work through a difficult situation.
Jen Otremba: Outside parties came in.
Bryan Strawser: Outside parties were involved.
Jen Otremba: Law enforcement maybe was involved.
Bryan Strawser: Now it’s over and we’ve started the process of recovery, which can take years. What do we do?
Jen Otremba: Now what happens?
Bryan Strawser: Now what happens? How do we learn? How do we know things worked or didn’t work?
Jen Otremba: I think the first step in this process would be to have an immediate hot wash.
Bryan Strawser: Also, we’re talking about after action processes.
Jen Otremba: After action.
Bryan Strawser: We start with a hot wash, what the heck is a hot wash? Because I know the first time I heard this, I was like, “What are you talking about? This is a foreign language.”
Jen Otremba: Yeah. This is something to be honest I feel like we do fairly well in the military, because we do … I learned this from a very young age, that after a big incident, after something occurred, you do some kind of an after action. Sometimes it’s involved, sometimes it’s not as involved, but usually we start with a hot wash. An immediate discussion of what just happened and what went right and what went wrong. Sometimes there’s emotions involved in that discussion as well.
Bryan Strawser: Because it just happened, and particularly if it was a violent event or it was a traumatic event there’s a lot of emotion involved. I think particularly for me, as we’ve talked before, my emotional and adrenaline dump happened when the disaster was over, when I knew that people were safe. It was the hardest time for me, and I think everybody’s going to be different with this but I think most people that do crisis things for a living, that emotional lease comes when the incident’s over. So the hot wash was always a difficult time for me, I had to really collect myself and then focus into this discussion that we were going to have. It’s dependent on the incident of course.
Jen Otremba: I think we’ve seen over time that that’s the fact for a lot of people, a lot of people go through that. Now their emotions are at an all time high during the hot wash and sometimes fingers get pointed and it’s not helpful, but sometimes it’s really important.
Bryan Strawser: We try to keep that out of …
Jen Otremba: Try to, yeah.
Bryan Strawser: Hot wash is really more of an informal immediate after action discussion about what just happened. Are we clear on the facts of what just happened? You get into the conversation of evaluating the response from your team. It’s not about individuals, it’s about what worked, what didn’t work. Did we do what we were supposed to do? Did we follow our processes? Or were those processes not adequate and we through them aside along the way? Which happens sometimes. It’s really that question of, in the hot wash what worked that we just saw? And what didn’t work?
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and then in that initial conversation, who should lead that and how long should that last?
Bryan Strawser: Right. I think about the … I think the most difficult hot wash situation that you and I were involved in when we worked together …
Jen Otremba: In a corporate setting.
Bryan Strawser: In a corporate setting, was we had an active shooter incident at a headquarters location. It was literally across the street. We’ve talked about this since then on a previous episode of the podcast. We did a hot wash with the incident commander from the law enforcement agency that led the response. His staff, several of our leaders and the entire SWAT, two SWAT teams actually, that responded …
Jen Otremba: Very crowded discussion.
Bryan Strawser: It was a very crowded discussion and we were fortunate to have a room that could accommodate everybody. It was a 30-ish minute, 45 minute discussion that in retrospect I think we said probably wasn’t really well led because we thought the police were going to drive it and the police actually had no idea how they were going to drive this particular conversation, so we took over as it went on.
That said, there were some valuable lessons that we captured from that conversation, but we also realized that in a hot wash you’re looking for the immediate info of what worked and didn’t, you don’t get the reflective, “Hey, I’ve had some time to think about this and now I think this and I think this and I think this.”
Jen Otremba: Hindsight, right. Yeah, or the hindsight of, “Oh, I can see why they were reacting that way, because big picture this is what they were dealing with but we were over here dealing with this and we weren’t coming together.” Those types of things can come out in a after action, a more organized one, a short period of time after the hot wash but enough time for people to get some rest and to think about what just happened.
Bryan Strawser: Think and converse and process what went on.
Jen Otremba: Yes, and come from that high, that sort of fight or flight high that they were just on.
Bryan Strawser: We always encourage the hot wash immediately at the end of the response but brief, 30 to 45 minutes. It doesn’t need to be strongly led. We prefer to lead these as someone, a leader within your crisis organization or a leader from the organization that your crisis team reports to.
Jen Otremba: If available.
Bryan Strawser: If available.
Jen Otremba: The incident lead is probably a good option.
Bryan Strawser: Right, but it’s kind of a conversation with the team and perhaps other leaders that were involved in that response or recovery, about what worked and what didn’t. You need to have a scribe, you need to take those notes. That’s kind of the immediate after action, is that hot wash discussion.
Jen Otremba: It’s like an immediate brain dump.
Bryan Strawser: Right, and then a pause.
Jen Otremba: How long?
Bryan Strawser: Three days, five days, a week, 10 days. You have to judge based on what went on and when is the right time to have this discussion.
Jen Otremba: Right, because you might be having people requiring to take some time off in between the discussion. You don’t want it to be so long that people are forgetting but it’s a good idea if you’re involved in a crisis to take some notes throughout that time. That break time between the incident and the after action, the formal after actions, to start taking some notes and jotting down some things so you can remember that during the discussion.
Bryan Strawser: One thing that I learned when I went through the NPLI program at Harvard was the value in journaling during an event. We had a requirement to journal daily during the program, but something that I got immense value out of was hearing these guys who have made their life’s work talking about the decisions that are made in national scale emergencies, who would go to the command centers of the Deep Water Horizon incident, and sit there with the incident commander and watch a meeting or a conference or a video conference.
And then, in the lull that followed to say, “Why did you just make that decision? What drove you to do that versus the other four options that you were given? Why did you decide to pick that person to lead this effort? Why did you say this instead of perhaps these other things that you could have said?” It’s the immediacy of that information that you don’t remember later, but you remember it in the moment because you’ve just made it.
Jen Otremba: These formal after actions, let’s talk about that for a second. This formal after action, who should lead it? What should we talk about? Who should be involved? Those types of questions seem to always come up. It’s a little bit more formal, so there’s some time to set a calendar invite to get people to start thinking about what they want to say. I usually start when I’m doing an after action is what went well. I like to start with a positive note, what went well in the situation?
Bryan Strawser: What worked?
Jen Otremba: What worked? What are we going to keep for the next time? Then, once we get through that process, usually people are a little bit on a high of all the good things that they did then and sort of [inaudible 00:08:33] into the, “So now what? What can we do better? How can we fix this for next time?”
Bryan Strawser: Again, these conversations are not about blame.
Jen Otremba: Not at all.
Bryan Strawser: It’s about, how do we be better?
Jen Otremba: But I think it’s natural to feel maybe a sense of being attacked or something like that, but it’s not the intent at all. It shouldn’t be used against people either. [crosstalk 00:08:52]
Bryan Strawser: No, no, no. Not at all. This is not a performance review or audit. It’s, how do we be better at the things that we’re trying to accomplish here?
Jen Otremba: As a team.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: How do we grow from this and how do we fix some of the things? What are the shortcomings that we didn’t see before that we now see because we experienced it? How do we fix those?
Bryan Strawser: We often encourage after actions to happen in some groups? Like-minded … Not like-minded, like-roled groups might be the best way to explain it. I always encourage them, we always did them, as the crisis team together, without other leaders or stakeholders or impacted locations. We did just the crisis team because that was a team that had been through many things together and were very candid with each other.
Jen Otremba: Very.
Bryan Strawser: Very candid with each other, but that’s what you want. We would do an after action meeting with that group. We did one with just our internal team that worked on crisis stuff full time. That was often about our internal processes for supporting a crisis, but it was also about the incident leader asking for feedback in a non-blameful way.
Jen Otremba: Constructive.
Bryan Strawser: But, how do I be better at what I just did? Where did I do well? What did I not do well from a leadership standpoint I need to do better? I always thought those were really healthy conversations but they were held in a safe environment.
Jen Otremba: Absolutely.
Bryan Strawser: Then we would do a call with the impacted leaders from the locations in that particular case that were involved in this crisis. We were able to glean, how could we better support you? Do you have adequate training for the roles that we expect you to have in a crisis? All of this flows into an after action report but they’re separate conversations.
In a large scale incident we often did, like the active shooter incident we’ve referenced before, I think we did some focus group conversations with impacted team members, employees. We met with some leaders who had people in that building based on what they had heard. We did a lot of things a little differently to capture as much feedback as possible, but also to make sure that people felt that their input was included in this very serious situation.
Jen Otremba: That’s because we worked for a large scale organization where there was a lot of players. But a small organization, same concept. Maybe would be a few less conversations. You probably wouldn’t need to have as many but same thing you’re capturing. You have to adjust that for the size of organization that you’re running.
Bryan Strawser: Right. At the end of this you’re writing a report of some type, a brief report we always try to get to. But we encourage and we coach our clients on a simple summary of the incident. What are the facts of what happened? The timeline that went with that? And then, here are the things that worked. Here’s what went well. Here’s what we saw as opportunities, things that didn’t go well.
Here’s what we can do about it. Here’s the actions that we’ve agreed to take as a part of this after action, and those actions should be specific, actionable to a person or a team. They should have dates associated with when they’re expected to be done and a priority, like are they high? Is it medium? Is it low?
Jen Otremba: Yeah, I think there’s also value to sharing that information.
Bryan Strawser: Yes.
Jen Otremba: Especially in a incident like we’re talking about where there were a lot of people involved, not just in the incident but were involved because their friends were over there or maybe they were in one of those rooms and they want to know what the company’s going to do about it because they were unhappy about certain things. Getting their input is also valuable, and then to let them know, “Hey, this isn’t just going to sleep, we have all of these processes we’re improving.”
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. You bring up a great point about there should be a way to share this information with stakeholders, with impacted locations. There has to be some overall accountability and tracking of the action items. If you have a crisis team, that’s probably the place that that should be owned but if you don’t, and many of you that listen to our podcast we know don’t really have teams, somebody needs to own that follow up process.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, it makes everyone feel better when they know that the place that they’re working or going to school or the hospital that they’re in, they know that they’re working towards better things. I think that’s a good thing. I have a question, after you do the working group and all of this, all of this sounds like really good stuff, right? So why isn’t there one done sometimes? Why wouldn’t you do an after action report? I don’t understand why you wouldn’t do that. I know there’s a lot of times when things don’t get done, and for a lot of reasons. For instance, no one maybe wants to initiate the discussion.
Bryan Strawser: Right, and it can be a hard discussion to initiate.
Jen Otremba: Super hard.
Bryan Strawser: You’re questioning how I performed.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: Even though I’m not.
Jen Otremba: No.
Bryan Strawser: That’s not the attempt, but some people will take it that way.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and some people will mean it that way but that shouldn’t be the case at all. That’s hard, to point out your mistakes and other people’s mistakes. That’s one reason that maybe they don’t get done, so you just power through that. You’ve got to work through that and put your emotions on the table and just say, “Okay, let’s put this aside and let’s have this discussion.”
An other reason I know that maybe this doesn’t get done is there isn’t someone that’s assigned to initiate that conversation. I think before an incident happens it’s a good idea to have somebody, whether like we talked about is the incident lead that their responsibility is to hold this after action so that it actually gets accomplished.
Bryan Strawser: I think in a lot of cases this doesn’t happen out of … It’s not because of malice that after actions don’t occur, it’s that we just get busy. Where we’ve had the event and now we’re post-response and we’re in recovery and we’re thinking ahead to what’s next and we probably don’t do this full time. We’re already thinking about, “I’ve got to go back to my regular job and do this other stuff.” Yeah, but you need to also talk about what … You will never get better if you don’t engage in some type of after action process with some accountability.
Jen Otremba: Sometimes there’s the idea that you just want to move on. Let’s just put that behind us, let’s just move on, let’s just move on.
Bryan Strawser: What was it? Who was it that said that if we don’t learn from history then we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, we may as well lie down on the railroad tracks so the train of history can run over us?
Jen Otremba: Right, and everyone’s been in an organization that just repeats the same mistakes. The after action is a way to correct that.
Bryan Strawser: It’s a way to make sure you only commit original new mistakes.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: Which are better.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, better new mistakes that you’re making, because we all make them. There’s always getting better.
Bryan Strawser: I think that’s always … Yeah, I was trying to think about the other discussions that I’ve had in my career on this. I think that particularly if you have a well oiled crisis process, the after action stuff can seem like kind of a drag. Because I remember coming out of Hurricane Sandy, where we had performed at our old employer really, really well. The CEO was thrilled and the board was thrilled. Local communities were thrilled. We had really come off of pretty phenomenal management of the situation. And then we had to sit there and go, “Yeah, but God, there’s like 40 things that didn’t go great.”
Jen Otremba: I was going to say, and I eventually guessed, that during an after action [crosstalk 00:16:26]
Bryan Strawser: Yeah, we had a whole list of stuff, good and bad and ugly, that were like, we’ve got to figure these things out so that we can be better. I’m not sure how we could have been better.
Jen Otremba: Except for those 40 things.
Bryan Strawser: There was a list of things. There was a list of things we thought we could do better but our results …
Jen Otremba: We needed to order the pizza earlier.
Bryan Strawser: We need to order pizza early. There were so many problems, so many problems. I think that’s worth bringing up, that I think a good crisis team is going to identify lots of opportunity for improvement. There’s also opportunities for improvement that are big and that take time to result. I know one of the issues I recall coming out of Hurricane Sandy is we thought that we had licked this, how do we get access to a site, how do we get credentialed to gain access to get our people in and get our equipment in in order to recover a location that was critical infrastructure, and that worked.
Except in one state. In that one state, the state was like, “Well yes, you can get in.” So here we go, convoy of trucks and stuff going in, and then you get township officials going, “No, we’re not open for business here.” We’re like, “Wait, but the state told us … ” We had to find a way to fix that. That took forever to figure out. You had to move some political mountains to make that happen.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. I also think too, from the outside looking in it may seem that everything went really well and everyone’s giving you kudos and a slap on the back and all this. You’re doing really good things. Like you said, we did all these great things during Hurricane Sandy. But you internally, your team internally knows that there are things that could be made better.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. To me, I think that that’s just part of being a good crisis leader, is the ability to see that there’s things that you can always be better. You’re always enhancing those and figuring out how to prioritize that through a good process.
Jen Otremba: I think it should be implemented into your process, so you go through the crisis, after action is documented right in there as the next step.
Bryan Strawser: Right. So have an after action process and have those difficult conversations about how to do better. Be transparent and share the information. You’ll be better for it over time and so will your response.