Quite often, I see others comment on the value of the Army’s After Action Review (AAR), so I wanted to take a moment and share how we conducted an AAR.

Most important, is establishing an environment where everyone is encouraged to share, get beyond egos, and act on constructive criticism.

This way, you can get the same value we did from our AARs by applying this concept effectively to your projects or events.

After Action Review

The Team Leader:

Our team leader, or flight lead, was responsible for our success. This involved the planning and execution of our mission.

In this scenario, the mission is for five helicopters to pick up a group of soldiers, then fly in tactical formation to transport them to a hostile location.  

First and foremost, our flight lead had to be skilled at navigation – fly for 45 minutes or more at 100 mph during the ingress, arrive within 30 seconds of planned times, and do the same for the egress – pretty stressful… just like meeting your project management deadlines and budget!

We’d assign flight lead only to the most capable individuals, usually rotating pilots after every exercise; I know I never did it twice in a row.

Note: even with GPS, navigation tools only tell you where you are, not where you are going. There are no streets to follow — see sample map below



One of the many subtasks for this misssion is to identify the best route from the pickup zone (PZ) to the landing zone (LZ), do the same for the return route, and mark any obstacles like towers, or wires – never our friends – in red.

Other tasks included getting the weather briefing to present to the rest of the team, communicating during the execution phase, internally as well as with other participating aviation units, the ground forces we served, and supporting Air Force aircraft.

Sometimes, we needed to communicate on four different radio frequencies. Clearly, flight lead could not handle everything, so understanding the importance of delegation was critical.

Delegating authority was key to the team leader’s overall success.

Performance Feedback:

For tactical purposes, our communication protocol was “radio listening silence.” Sometimes, however, when a flight lead needed help, we simply transmitted:

“Check nav right (or left)”


“Check time fast (or slow)”

Simple, but as you can imagine, the immediate performance feedback was valuable.

Timely feedback delivered with positive intentions, and received without  egos getting bruised!

Delegating Authority

Post Mortem: Our After Action Review

Like your projects, nothing goes exactly as planned. We gained value by identifying mistakes or areas for improvement. This required 360-degree insight and meant inviting feedback from everyone involved.

We did this via our version of the after action review, or hotwash*, a process that had these standard rules of engagement (ROE):

  • Make only constructive comments
  • Stay focused on what should be sustained or improved
  • Leave your rank and any thin skins at the door

* Hot wash – a term that had real meaning for us.  Imagine standing underneath the helicopter while the rotor system blows the hot engine air on you.

(See this HBR article for similar thoughts on a Team Meeting and its Rules of Engagement)

Applying Feedback:

As mentioned in the typical ROE, this was not an event for the thin-skinned. It’s nice to give, but you had to be able to receive feedback.

Since you never knew when it would be your turn to serve as the team leader, it was wise to temper your remarks and provide only constructive criticism.  This meant directing your comments toward actions, not individuals.

  • Typically, our team leader (flight lead) received the majority of comments during the hotwash.
  • Typically, our team leader (flight lead) learned the most about how to lead the next time.

Your Leadership Culture and Communication Skills

Creating the environment where everyone felt comfortable sharing their observations had everything to do with each unit’s leadership culture and the team leader’s communication skills.

When applied correctly, the after action review is a great tool for developing deeper connections within your organization and continually improving performance.

See also — Why the AAR is Important to You

Here are a few more blogs on team building: