How To Improve Team Performance by 25%

Team de-brief

Twenty five percent is not a small number, definitely not a marginal gain! It’s a huge uplift, achieved through the application of a single team habit. The use of After Action Reviews.


After Action Reviews, (AAR), sometimes referred to as Retrospectives in the language of agile planning are a post-mortem review of team performance designed to generate feedback and aid collective learning.  With their roots in the military, AARs are increasingly being used in medicine, business and other organizational settings.


The 25% figure in the headline comes from a 2013 Meta-analysis of the performance benefits of using an AAR[1]. The research reviewed 46 studies, encompassing 546 teams, and found an average 25% performance effect compared with the control conditions. But despite the potential gains, AARs in reality are not widely used, even in the military and even when they are, there are significant challenges to getting them right.


The ability to adapt and to learn requires a feedback loop. This maybe instinctive to an individual but collectively, for a team, this is much harder. The truth is that most teams don’t learn how to evolve retrospective observations into improved future performance. Shared experience is no guarantee of shared wisdom. Plotted on a graph, an average team’s performance typically has peaks and troughs, which often represent key individuals moving on, taking their expertise with them and leaving the team struggling to fill a knowledge or skills gap.


From running and observing hundreds of AARs here are some of the challenges to reaping the (very significant) potential rewards of doing this well.


  • Too blind. You have to notice and pay attention. Observation, equals the data in the system, if leaders and team members don’t notice you either have no data or poor-quality data. The power to notice is a leadership and team super-power that like any skill has to be developed.


  • Too late. The AAR needs to take place in near immediate proximity to the performance event. Aircrew and Special Forces teams return from the mission and immediately go into a de-brief. The mission is considered incomplete until this is done.


  • Too long. This is an acute challenge in business where the limiting resource is nearly always time. If an AAR takes too long, we simply won’t do it because we don’t feel we have time. In business it has to take place in minutes and it has to fit into the seams of a normal working day.


  • Too much. The point of the AAR is to identify lessons that we can apply to our performance. The problem is that identifying lessons and learning lessons are not the same thing. The former is easy, whereas learning lessons, the actual process of change and application is hard. The main barrier is focus. It’s not very useful to identify five things that could be better because we can’t focus on 5-things. The key is that you must define a single point of focus. There might be 5-things but you can only pay attention to one of them at a time.


  • Too disconnected. The end becomes the beginning. AARs work when the intention at the end of the AAR – a commitment next time to pay attention to the 1-thing is used pre-mortem to focus attention. This might be a 2-minute huddle, ‘we are about to do another of these things, last time we identified that to improve we should focus on x. What do we need to pay attention to now in order that x is done better?’

[1] Tannenbaum, S. I., & Cerasoli, C. P. (2013). Do team and individual debriefs enhance performance? A meta-analysis. Human Factors, 55,231–245

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