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The After-Action Learning Dynamic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tracy Rickman, John Updike, Ygnacio Flores, Don Mason
May 10, 2024

As organizations strive to build better, more effective teams, supporting the team with transformational leadership theory and concepts is essential. The “do-more-with-less” era was once tied to budget restraints, a practice resulting in limited efficiency. This form of management transitioned to “do what is needed to build the most efficient team possible.” The process of achieving the organization’s goals and mission begs many questions. Primary among the questions is asking what an organization is doing and how it can do it better with scarce resources. A proactive leadership approach focuses on team dynamics. Forming an effective team requires managing the many factors of team performance to develop meaningful organizational change. Training absent the metrics to learn from the scenarios testing the organization wastes people’s time and valuable organizational resources. 

Turning fresh memories into pedagogical experiences best reflects an organization’s abilities. One tactic for experiential learning is taking advantage of the knowledge of all team members. The best method is an immediate incident debrief through the after-action team-building process.

Many public safety leadership models include after-action discussions to create opportunities for future success. The focus is on using qualitative methods to review lessons learned. Valuing participant experiences draws value from each member’s role in an incident, whether real or scenario-based training. Analysis of non-numerical data frame concepts and opinions to gather an in-depth understanding of a problem space. The result is generating new ideas for future performance and analysis. 

The after-action dynamic (AAD) mitigates gaps left by training across complex systems. Like a fine tapestry, each team member provides a piece of yarn to complete the final illustration of an incident. After-action dynamics grows an organization more than just simple experiences of routine training. 

The overarching goal of AAD is to review what just happened, elicit responses from others, provide a platform for input, encourage conversation and create an environment of collaboration. The AAD strongly supports an effective learning organization. The AAD is a tool that allows individuals to speak and relate their views, whether popular or not. Leaders must value the different experiences and perspectives of their teams.

An example of learning from an AAD is the first debriefing session. The debrief cannot be separated from the training event. Once an exercise concludes, participants need to share their experiences. Using a circle to muster the participants reduces negativity in strict hierarchies and helps with sharing in an open forum. Each team member takes a turn answering three critical questions:

  • How did I perform today?
  • What can I do better next time?
  • What can the leaders do to enhance performance in future training?

The questions posed are sometimes different depending on the event analyzed. All members take turns answering these three questions. Each person needs to speak uninterrupted, for as long or as short as they deem necessary, to relate their experience. The group leader is the last person to answer all three questions. A leader is usually the chief, the manager,or the training facilitator, who provides insight into future activities and goals to discuss moving forward. The takeaway with the AAD is team building while reducing the individual ego impact as humility, team cohesiveness and group effort become clear. The AAD encourages insight into successes and failures and allows for vulnerability. A complete continuum of learning can be carried out from the start of the activity to the evaluation phase of learning.

The after-action learning dynamic can be used when administrators want to provide a servant leadership model while being aware of the organization’s needs. Not only does the activity, once completed, express a valuable evaluation tool, but the group members will also gain a sense of belonging, strengthen future group efforts and provide a catalyst for future endeavors, as performance should be enhanced as expectations are made known. The involvement of all members who actively take part in group efforts will help understand individual strengths and weaknesses and the team’s strengths and weaknesses to provide insight for change and promote future goals.

The above figure illustrates the continuous feedback loop of AAD where assessing, modifying, planning and implementing take place in planning and leadership. The after-action dynamic is a tool. This process should be incorporated and used in group settings. It will gain traction as organizations progress in group performance, group effort and team building. Action-after-learning provides a continuous feedback loop. Information gathered during the after-action learning will support modification and planning for future activities. Feel free to contact the authors if anyone wants to discuss this dynamic further.

Authors: Tracy Rickman, John Updike, Ygnacio Flores, Don Mason. Dr. Tracy Rickman is faculty at Tarleton State University. Fire Chief H. Dave Updike, ICT2. Dr. Ygnacio “Nash” Flores and Don Mason are faculty at Rio Hondo College

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