Monday, January 24, 2011

the after-action report

one of the lessons i learned from my grandparents was their habit of always conducting what they called "the after-action report."

it was a term used in the U.S. military from what i took to be World War II, and referred to the requirement that all participants in an engagement--essentially, any soldier involved in a battle--submit themselves to a review of the events that had taken place. typically, the reviews involved a process wherein the subjects were asked to offer a personal recollection of what had transpired, which was then, along with the individual, given an analysis by other parties affiliated and unaffiliated with the person or the event.

the main purpose of the after-action report, apart from just taking a check on the soldier's state of mind and physical health in terms of fitness to continue, was to identify the mistakes that had been made and the lessons that needed to be learned. this was considered crucial, as it helped the individual and the group increase their knowledge and draw upon their experiences to improve their chances of survival and enable their continued progress.

my grandparents took this, partly out of habit, partly out of routine, but largely because it had been how they had been trained and had been expected for them to uphold for most of their professional careers. despite this, over the years that i knew them, i also came to see that they also retained the use of the after-action report because they saw its value and understood its worth in dealing with events in life.

both were of that generation that had grown up in the Great Depression, fought through World War II, and then gone on to long careers in the U.S. government. and from what i have gathered, for that generation the techniques and strategies developed in public service to deal with the problems of the larger world were also techniques and strategies that were translated into personal life to deal with the problems of the individual one as well. which meant that military things like the after-action report were taken not just as relevant for government work but also for life in general--and in some ways, if anything, they were seen as even more relevant.

this, however, assumed that the after-action report was done right.

done right, an after-action report, at least the way my grandparents did it, engaged in brutal honesty.



open presentation of the facts. precise marking of timing. full listing of behavior. complete delineation of reasoning. total detail of judgment. comprehensive revelation of options and outcomes. hypothetical and real. no matter how bad or how well. no matter how much it hurt. if anything, the more it hurt, the better, since we have a way of generating lies and half-truths to cover up our mistakes.

this wasn't just for all the parties involved in assessing someone else. it was also supposed to occur within every person assessing themselves. if anything, it was especially to apply to assessing the self...because we know the truth, deep down in places we can never understand and from which we always seek to hide but which we always, always, always know to be there.

but that was the easy part.

the hard part, and the most important part, was to then distill the lessons for the future.

this was hard, because distilling the lessons required the diligence to see the mistakes, the intelligence to identify the solutions, the wisdom to discern the best ways to implement them, the courage to actually do them, and then the sensitivity to make sure that no more harm came about as a result.

this was important, however, because without this the entire purpose of the after-action report was rendered useless. and that purpose, above all else, was to increase knowledge and draw upon experiences to improve chances of survival and enable continued progress.

in other words, to improve. to become better.

which i guess is why i've come to cling to it so.

because in my life--in my training, my racing, my studying, my working, my sleeping, my eating, my breathing, my thinking, my dreaming, my living, my journey in the distance--i've come to realize the same thing that my grandparents did:

what i as an individual and we as a collective and humanity as a species and creation as this cosmos is really all about is progress.


becoming better.

everyone and everything and everyall that is together in this existence.

better than what we remember we were before. more than what we think we are now. greater than whatever we could possibly wish we will be in the future.


and for that to happen we--i, we, us, here, now--have to learn from all that which has gone before.

we have to know what happened and we have to distill our lessons.

we have to have the after-action report.

and above all, we have to live it.

1 comment:

Habeela said...

Nice post. For what it's worth, the term after action report (AAR) is still used by the military today and is also called a "hot wash".

As someone who was recently introduced to AARs, I also find them to be a good thing to apply to ones life. Cheers to learning and improving.