What the Army Taught Business About Project Failure Causes

When a project fails, companies typically rush into the “blame game” with fingers pointed directly at the project manager. But it’s not necessarily their fault. And it’s important to get to the root cause of the problem so you don’t repeat it again.

In our culture, the first thing we normally do when there’s a problem is find out who did it. That doesn’t really solve problems at all because we’re looking at the wrong thing. We need to investigate “what caused it” so it doesn’t get repeated time and again.

One of the best ways to find out the “what” is to use a structured process called the After Action Review (AAR). This process, originally created by the Army, has been adopted by the business world to enable a focus on the facts of a situation, rather than emotions, in determining what went wrong and how to fix it using a structured format.

The AAR processes focuses on digging deep into four key questions.

  1. What was planned?
  2. What really happened?
  3. Why did it happen?
  4. What can we do?

The AAR is a professional discussion about the tasks and goals of the project with key participants. It’s important to remember that the AAR is not a critique. Its aim is not to place anyone on the defensive. The beauty of the AAR is that it is not a judgment session, but rather a discovery about why a certain situation occurred. The flow of an AAR is to encourage participants to engage in the discussion so important lessons are discovered.

The AAR can be used during a project or at the end of a project very effectively. There are two kinds of AARs.

  1. Formal AAR – a structured, facilitator led discussion of a group of people
  2. Informal AAR – typically a one-to-one discussion between two people

Conducting The Formal AAR

A formal AAR takes a good bit of preparation to do properly and should always be conducted by a third party facilitator who can guide the discussion. It’s important the facilitator be involved in planning so they have adequate background on what the original expectations were for the project.

The facilitator’s role is to be an unbiased leader who ensures the discussion is professional and focused on improvement. They should be involved in the planning, and responsible for preparing, conducting, and providing follow up documents for the AAR.

To plan the event properly, you’ll need to choose a site that will accommodate the number of participants and is conducive to open discussion. Once that’s set, prepare for the session by developing an agenda that sets some ground rules for the discussion – e.g., leave rank at the door, everyone is a participant not an observer, no finger pointing or blaming, etc. The rest of the agenda should be set based on the four key AAR questions.

To dig out the important information, open-ended, non-judging questioning should be used to get to the root of the issue. These would be questions like, “What did you do to accomplish that (specific) task?,” not “Why did you do (specific action) to accomplish that task?” The idea here is to focus on where things could be improved, not attack a person and their way of doing things.

As the session progresses, key information should be captured so a proper follow up action document can be created and distributed after the meeting.

  1. Issue:  Clearly identify each issue. (What was planned?)
  2. Discussion:  Pull out points that identify why the issue was important and what impact it had on the outcome. These could be either negative or positive points. (What really happened? Why did it happen?)
  3. Recommendation:  For each point of discussion, identify what action can be taken to continue doing things the same way or a solution that can be implemented for the future. (What can we do?)
  4. Action: Note any action items that must occur by when once the session has completed. Make sure ownership of these items is included.

Formal recommendations from the AAR should be implemented and used for continuous improvement on future projects.

Conducting the Informal AAR

Informal AARs take much less time and can be used as a training or knowledge management tool. The key is to follow the four question process and questioning strategy to ensure a good outcome.

By using the AAR process in your company, you can survive failures and turn them into successes. And you’ll create an environment of trust and continuous learning where the blame game is no longer acceptable.

Have you used the AAR process? How has that worked for you? It would be helpful if you’d share your experience in the comments below.

Related Posts

Posted in Change Management | Tagged , , ,