How to Debrief Using After-Action Reviews

young employees meeting

An after-action review (AAR) is also known as a post-mortem or debrief. It is a technique that organizations in varied industries have been increasingly using to extract lessons from a recent project or event, which can be especially beneficial to leadership development.

The research thus far has found AARs to be effective in improving task performance. The authors of this study (Keiser & Arthur Jr., 2020) sought to expand on past research by examining how effective AARs are with factors besides task performance, as well as how various factors are related to AAR effectiveness. The authors took 270 previous studies on the effectiveness of AAR and performed a meta-analysis, or statistical combination of studies. 


Individual Versus Team

In the context of team AARs, a self-led approach was more effective than an expert-led facilitation. This may be due to team members feeling more psychological safety when debriefing only among other team members, rather than in the presence of someone outside the team.

However, with individual AARs, an expert-led facilitation was more effective than a self-led approach. This is probably because it helps to ensure that all learning points are covered, particularly when employees are not able to draw from the perspectives of other team members.

High Versus Low Structure

A structured AAR involves a more focused discussion and concrete agenda to help move through the AAR process. An unstructured AAR is more like an open conversation in which team members can be unsure about what topics to discuss or how much time to allocate to discussing them. 

The researchers found that high structure AARs were more effective in the military, which seems to fit with military culture. However, in healthcare and other industries, both high and low structure AARs were equally effective. 

Type of Review Media

There are three main ways in which teams review projects or events during AARs: discussion, text, or video. AARs that are solely discussion-based are considered to be subjective media as they rely on the memory of the trainees. Objective media would be video or text documentation of how a project or event was carried out, relying less on the memory of team members.

The authors found that objective media tended to be more impactful for self-led (versus expert-led) AARs, probably because the objective media compensates for the lack of an expert leader.


Given these research findings, the authors recommend using self-led facilitation in a team AAR and expert-led facilitation during an individual AAR. They also recommend that organizations consider the industry that they are in when determining the level of structuring in an AAR. Lastly, the authors recommend using objective media during AARs whenever possible.


Keiser, N. L., & Arthur Jr., W. (2020). A Meta-analysis of the effectiveness of the after-action review (or debrief) and factors that influence its effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.