November 20, 2017
 
Project Reviews Pave the Way for Future Successes

By Jay Vogt

Jay Vogt
By conducting an After Action Review to examine the objectives, accomplishments, and lessons learned from a completed project, a nonprofit can better understand its true performance and core competencies.

Every time an organization invests time and money into a project of any size, there is an opportunity to learn something to make the next project go better. To learn from their experience, organizations conduct brief project reviews, similar to what the U.S. military calls “After Action Reviews (AARs).”

Organizations that don’t learn from their experience are condemned to repeat past mistakes.

AARs follow a simple, common-sense format to ask and answer four questions:
  1. What did we set out to do?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What worked, and why?
  4. What could be improved, and how?
AARs can take less than an hour or last a full day, depending on the complexity of the project. Most are led by a skilled facilitator charged with fostering a spirit of learning, not blame. One of the Army’s key ground rules for AARs is, “Leave your rank at the door.” If lower-level workers don’t feel free to speak up, little of any value can be learned.

A team at Partners Community Healthcare, Inc. (PCHI), recently convened an AAR on a year-long, complex effort to develop, implement, and monitor new network health-quality measures. The organization was about to begin a new annual cycle and knew that every insight generated through the AAR could be put to immediate use.

Memories fade in a year, and it took some excavation for PCHI to unearth its original objectives and document the twists and turns that unfolded in the first year of what was an ambitious and novel enterprise.

Alex Baker, PCHI’s chief operating officer, started the review by sharing objectives from early documents and a reconstructed calendar of significant events in the life of the project. With help from a facilitator, team members shared their own perceptions of the starting objectives, and significant project milestones, in building a consensus view.

“Getting into the time machine, and having a structured review of what happened, was a great way to start the process, as we could then move forward into the assessment from the same starting place,” reflected Baker.

The bulk of an AAR is spent on the third and fourth questions. Asking what worked and why is essential to accurately reflect a team’s true performance and core competence. In the absence of such a question, team members typically default to self-criticism and can walk away discouraged from an essentially successful venture.

“The day was constructed such that we were able to thoroughly assess the lessons learned, both the good and the bad, without losing sight of the fact that we had accomplished a great deal and had a lot to be proud of,” Baker said.

Finally, the team proceeds to the fourth question. Here team members can satisfy their desires to point out flaws, but within some gentle parameters. The linguistic prompt is not just “What didn’t work?,” which can bring forth both negativity and blame without any constructive solutions, but “What can be improved, and how?”

This prompt directs team members to identify an area of potential improvement, and make specific suggestions for that improvement. “Everyone was able to be thoughtful about the process without getting defensive or turning it into a finger-pointing session,” recalled Baker. “This was a group that had worked very hard on a complicated project for well over a year. The AAR was a very positive experience for a group that didn’t always have positive experiences along the way.”

Jay W. Vogt is president of Peoplesworth and author of Recharge Your Team: The Grounded Visioning Approach, published by Praeger. Contact Jay at jay@peoplesworth.com.

May 2011

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