Ideas, suggestions and general thoughts about project management for development.

After Action Review in Project Management

The  After-Action Review (AAR) is a simple process used by a project that enables the team to learn for themselves what happened, why it happened, what went well, what needs improvement and what lessons can be learned from the experience.  The spirit of an AAR is one of openness and learning - it is not about problem fixing or allocating blame. The goal of an AAR is to improve future performance. It is an opportunity for a team to reflect on a project, cycle, milestone, event or a significant delivery, and identify improvements so that they can do better the next time.

AAR is a form of group reflection; participants review what was intended, what actually happened, why it happened and what was learned. One member of the group facilitates, capturing results on a flip chart or in a document. One key element for a successful AAR is that they should be carried out with an open spirit and no intent to blame. The best time to conduct an AAR is right after the end of a project cycle or major milestone to reveal what has been learned, reassess direction, and review both successes and challenges.

Here are some of the key elements of an effective AAR:

  • Present the purpose and rules, the AAR does not seek to criticize negatively, or find fault. The emphasis should be on learning, so make this clear right from the start to achieve maximum involvement, openness, and honesty.
  • AAR’s should be carried out immediately to ensure that all of the participants are still available, and their memories are fresh.
  • What was supposed to happen? The team describes the initial objectives of the project or activity, stating just facts and not judgment
  • What actually happened? The team must understand and agree on facts about what actually happened.
  • Learning begins as the team compares the plan to what actually happened and determined the causes for the differences identifies and discuss successes and shortfalls.
  • Recording the key elements of an AAR facilitates sharing of learning experiences within the team and provides the basis for broader learning in the organization.

What makes after action reviews so powerful is that they can be applied across a wide spectrum of activities, from two individuals conducting a five-minute AAR at the end of a short meeting to a day-long AAR held by a project team at the end of a large project.

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Informal vs Formal Project Management

Informal Project Management implies that the planning and execution of projects are undertaken in a way that the project manager thinks it is best. By contrast, formal project management implies rules and the strict adherence to protocols for every step and stage of the project life cycle.
Informal project management is defined as doing a project; however, the informal project management environment project managers approach projects in the way they deem appropriate. Project management techniques are driven by personal preference and instinct, and the project manager makes decision-based on his or her experience, training, and judgment.

Formal project management is defined as completing a project on paper before the actual project begins, creating a detailed plan, and then executing the project according to that plan. In a formal project management environment, the project manager must follow procedures and practices as defined by an imposed standard. The project management techniques are driven by rules, and the emphasis is on following the plan.

At one extreme of the spectrum, there is project management with no rules. At the other extreme is project management wherein rules control everything. The more informal the PM environment, the fewer rules and guidelines there are for the project managers to work within. On the other hand, the more formal the PM environment, the greater the restrictions and controls are on every activity and document.

Project Management Maturity

As organizations become more mature from a project management perspective, they move along the scale from informal toward more formal PM practices. This transition reflects a growing concern over project success rates and awareness that there are better, more advantageous, and effective project management practices than the ones that many organizations currently use.

There is ample evidence to suggest that most projects operating without rules and guidelines will waste time and money. Using a simple analogy comparing PM to accounting controls, how much money would be misspent by a project if there were little or no controls on spending, versus one in which there were very tight controls?  To which organization would you like to be a donor?

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