How After Action Reviews Can Improve Your Digital Strategy | Beth's Blog

How After Action Reviews Can Improve Your Digital Strategy


The After Action Review is a reflective practice that can be used for anything, but I find it especially valuable for social media pilots and experiments.    The After Action Review (AAR) is a structured way to capture the lessons learned from any project, with the intent of improving future performance.  It is an opportunity for a group to reflect on a project, activity, event or task so that they can do it better the next time.   It can also be used in the middle of a project or strategy to learn while doing.

The process is simple.   You ask and answer these questions:

  • What was the intent?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What was learned?

One person in the group facilitates and the rest of the groups participates.  The feedback is captured on a white board or online document.   The process can be done in person or online.

An After Action Review can produce insights, but participants need to embrace with an open attitude, not blame game.     What makes it useful as this detailed description of the method points out.

  • It does not judge success or failure.
  • It attempts to discover why things happened.
  • It focuses directly on the tasks and goals that were to be accomplished.
  • It encourages people to surface important lessons in the discussion.
  • More people participate so that more of the project or activity can be recalled and more lessons can be learned and shared.

Last week, I participated in a free agent campaign called #takebackthepink –  was launched  shortly after January 31, 2012 when the AP reported that the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s board had decided to stop providing grants to Planned Parenthood affiliates to support breast health efforts.  This decision ignited a flurry of responses from individuals and organizations and mainstream media – both for and against the decision.  My colleague, Allison Fine, launched a fundraiser, and ignited a flurry of online organization as she recounts here.

It is another reminder that in our  clearly demonstrated that in our connected world,  ideas and action can spread fast – and as Clay Shirky says, “We can feel faster than think.”      Social networks provide the stage for unconnected actors, free agents, and people who care about issue to organize and take action – very quickly.     This how a campaign, “TakeBackthePink” launched.   While it wasn’t my campaign,  I participated in the “TakeBackthePink” to understand the lessons of self-organizing, free agent activists along with Allison Fine, Amy Sample Ward, Stephanie Rudat, Lucy Bernholz, Tom Watson, and Lisa Colton.

The lessons did not happen as the drama was unfolding, it happened through an “after action review” that we did virtually in a google document.  You can read the full reflection here.

Does your organization use an “After Action Review” process or something similar to debrief on campaigns, programs, and other activities?   Have  a story to share about how it worked or didn’t?  Leave in the comments.


13 Responses

  1. A great metric that can easily be overlooked. A lot of times when events are done it’s easy to move on to the next thing.

    I appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and wisdom on this.

  2. Heidi Holtz says:

    We adopted AAR not only for our internal projects, but two years ago for all our grantees to use in reporting. No matter the size of the grant, it has been an extraordinarily simple yet cogent way to understand how a grant worked out. More importantly we help the organizations see how to build learning into their practices. Oh, but the struggles for the complete honesty that is required… and that we encourage, and frankly honor.

  3. Beth Kanter says:

    Heidi: How do you encourage complete honesty?

    Matthew: I agree – it is easy to bounce to the next thing without taking the time reflect and learn. We loose a lot when don’t reflect

  4. Erica Mills says:

    I see a lot of value in AAR for messaging. When doing messaging on a shoestring, testing often gets shorted. I encourage “street testing”, which is essentially informal testing when you’re trying out new messaging and before you send anything to print (i.e. incur fixed costs that’d become sunk costs if the messaging isn’t effective!). AAR offers a more structured approach. Can’t wait to play with this.

    For what it’s worth, I found myself wanting to add a zero before the ‘1’ that was ‘Organizational Goal’ and edit ‘4’ to be ‘Project Goal’ or something like that to reinforce that the objectives align to an organizational goal and that ‘4’ is specific to the social media experiment. This would likely naturally happen when doing the exercise in-person, but the obvious is easily overlooked.

  5. Analyzing the events within a crisis is an actual part of the entire social media crisis plan (or at least should be), that companies tend to overlook.

    There are so many benefits that come from it, and it really helps to strengthen not just the crisis strategy or social media marketing strategy, but the internal communications and the brand itself.

    Thanks for this great post!

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  8. sanchezjb says:

    After-action reviews are a great learning tool. There are two significant challenges though.

    The first is intitutionalizing the process so it becomes embedded in the organization’s culture vs an ad-hoc or “good idea” initiative.

    The second challenge is capturing “Lessons Learned” in a manner that makes them accessible and meaningful. As an example, one of the first actions a project team should do is access the “Lessons Learned” library / repository to determine what knowledge is relevant to their project and apply that knowledge to enable success and mitigate risk.

  9. This is spot on. We should also do the same thing BEFORE we launch a strategy. SOmetimes we’re remarkably unclear on what we’re trying to achieve. Someone just tells us to “do it”, so we do. Then it’s done, and we think: “We did it.” Did what? Similarly, we don’t think about what we may be able to learn. IF we did, we might put in a few variables to test things. In other words, we can think about some experiments in ADVANCE.

    This is a great template. Thanks so much.

  10. […] featured folks like Lucy Bernholz, Alison Fine, Amy Sample Ward, Deanna Zandt, Kivi Leroux Miller, Beth Kanter, and […]

  11. Nícolas says:

    It looks like the PDCA process (plan, do, check, act).

    We are used to do review meetings to improve our software development process at Engage.

    It really works! And it’s so easy to do! We just ask to ourselves: what good happened and should be repeated and what bad happened and should not be repeated.

    We are not used to document these meetings, we just keep things in mind. People use to memorize and change habits, and then change the culture we are used to. Without any pression of somebody superior.

    Nice post!

  12. […] nonprofits to take some time to understand EdgeRank to find out who’s actually seeing your content.  That can help inform the content you post going forward. (This process is also called “After Action Reviews”). […]

  13. […] It’s OK to fail! If you discover that your previous social media efforts were ineffective, adjust your goals accordingly and implement a plan that works for you. This is what Kanter refers to as an after action review. […]