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The Effective Post-Crisis After-Actions Review

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

By Joe Jarret
May 28, 2020

Introduction:

 When I was the county attorney for Polk County Florida, the county manager and I ensured that, after every hurricane or other crises, we had a candid after-actions review (AAR), with key personnel. The purpose of the AAR is to identify the best practices we intended to implement during the crisis and for future events, as well as to discuss any mistakes or shortcomings we didn’t want to see repeated. These AARs are done “post-mortem”—after the fact, and well-past any opportunity to change the outcome. However, AARs are a useful tool to identify problems or weaknesses that need to be addressed prior to the next crisis.

The AAR:

The AAR must be an open and honest professional discussion that encourages participation from everyone on the team. It is important to note the overriding purpose of the AAR is to avoid fault-finding or negative criticism. Rather, the emphasis should be on learning, a fact that must be made clear to participants right from the start if you hope to achieve maximum involvement, openness and honesty. This is not the time for finger-pointing or recriminations. An atmosphere must be developed that encourages employees to focus on their response to the crisis, identify ways to sustain what was done well and develop recommendations on ways to overcome obstacles that prevented teams from fully and effectively functioning throughout the crisis.

AARs should be conducted in person whenever possible, unless an ongoing crisis mandates that a phone, teleconference or other electronic method is necessary. In those cases where the meeting needs to be virtual, every effort must be made to ensure communications security. The leader/manager should ensure participation by all team members, and senior management should lead the discussion.

Not Just a Postmortem:

An effective AAR uses accountability in a context that is forward-looking rather than backward-looking. People are expected to remain accountable for learning their own lessons, taking those lessons from one situation and applying them to others and forging unambiguous links between past experience and future performance.

What is Past is Often Prologue:

Although the AAR is a forward-looking tool, it is essential that leaders survey past crises in an effort to identify the learning challenges they posed. I found it most useful to periodically review past AARs to in an effort to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Doing so helps you improve the long-term effectiveness of future responses. Further, leadership should conduct the AAR as soon as possible. For feedback to be effective, it should be timely. Memory does not improve with age. By doing an AAR as soon as the crisis is over, you’ll get a more accurate description of what happened. It is, therefore, crucial that all employees, when feasible, document all of the steps they take during a crisis. This record will assist you in conducting an effective, professional AAR. Further, such a record leads to vital questions that should be asked and answered during the AAR. Some of the questions that should be asked during the AAR include, but are not limited to:

  • What were our original objectives? Did we meet them?
  • When problems arose, and did we optimally solve them?
  • Were there any setbacks beyond our control? If so, did we take steps to mitigate the impact of these situations?
  • Did managers and supervisors/team leaders feel they received adequate training to complete the mission at hand?
  • Were all instructions and expectations made clear prior to the crisis?
  • What were some of our noteworthy successes during the crisis? Who or what was responsible for them?
  • How did we utilize technology during the crisis? Was the tech we used easy to implement, maintain and navigate? Did it provide useful data for analysis?
  • In the event the grid failed, what low-tech backup systems were available/implemented?
  • Did the general public express, valid or otherwise, any concerns about service delivery?

Summary:

A critical part of any well-designed crisis management plan is an effective, timely AAR. As discussed above, this reflective process can pinpoint the weaknesses in an existing plan and suggest appropriate solutions in the event of future crises. When employees are assured that everyone’s views have equal value, that no blame will be assessed, that there are no right or wrong answers and leadership is open to new ideas, you are on your way towards an effective, no-nonsense AAR.


Author: Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney, and mediator who has served several state and local governmental entities in Florida and Tennessee. A former United States Army Armored Cavalry Office with service overseas, he lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He holds the B.S. in Criminal Justice, a Masters in Public Administration, a Juris Doctorate, and is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Tennessee.

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