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It is that time of the year again when everyone participates in a review or two. The most notable is the HR review or employee appraisal since it concludes the individual’s performance for the year. While some may dread the process, the review has more pros than cons. Depending on how it is structured, it can be used to identify strengths and weaknesses effectively, offer constructive feedback, and set goals for the future.

We see its importance and understand the benefits. But how can we, as producers, leverage this useful tool and incorporate it into our project management and production development? That’s when we started adopting the practice of having an After-Action Review (AAR) for each project. This reflective practice not only allows our artists to learn from their experiences but also fosters a culture of innovation and excellence.

What is an After-Action Review?

Maybe you have never heard of it. Or maybe you and your team are using a different term. But in general, an After Action Review is a structured debriefing process held after a project or a specific phase has been completed. Originating from the military, this method has found its way into various industries, including the creative realm. For a creative body or 3D studio, the AAR process offers an opportunity to evaluate the successes and failures of a project, identify areas for improvement, and refine future workflows.

For us, it is an introspective process that occurs after the completion of a creative project or phase. It emphasises the exploration of not only what went right or wrong but also why and how certain creative decisions were made. It is a holistic approach that combines reflection, analysis, and forward-thinking to enhance the creative process. These are the fundamental areas that we focus on to constantly improve ourselves.

Do Creatives Need It?

I hear you. This takes too much time. Stakeholders are constantly busy. Not everyone is open to such discussions. Conflicts will arise. My answer to such statements would be, ‘Do you value progress and growth as a team?’. If you do, then it is important to consider incorporating AARs into the mix.

The biggest worry that I have as a Creative Producer is stagnation. This means there is no creative growth and a lack of push to elevate the quality of work. Artists will then start to develop the superstar or Diva mentality and rest on their laurels. Partners are always on the lookout for the best and ‘bang-for-buck’ solutions. There is no room for complacency in the ecosystem. This is why AARs are important to ensure that we remain relevant and efficient to work with.

The key benefits of having AARs include:

1. Continuous Improvement

AARs provide a structured mechanism for continuous improvement. By reflecting on each project, creative teams can identify what worked well and areas that need enhancement. This iterative process fosters a culture of ongoing learning and refinement.

2. Enhanced Collaboration

AARs encourage open communication and collaboration among team members. The process creates a forum where individuals can share their perspectives, insights, and experiences, fostering a sense of teamwork and collective problem-solving.

3. Efficient Workflow

Analysing the creative workflow through AARs allows teams to identify bottlenecks, streamline processes, and improve overall efficiency. This is particularly important in a 3D studio, where intricate and complex tasks are often part of the production pipeline.

4. Optimised Resource Allocation:

AARs help in evaluating how resources, including time and manpower, were utilised during a project. This insight aids in making informed decisions on resource allocation for future projects, ensuring optimal use of available assets.

5. Reduced Risk of Repetitive Mistakes:

By examining both successes and challenges, AARs enable teams to pinpoint mistakes made during a project and understand their root causes. This awareness significantly reduces the risk of repeating similar errors in subsequent projects.

I understand that there might be uncomfortable situations, such as accountability and ownership, so it is important to remain objective. Do not shy away from such conversations but rather reinforce the fact that we are working together to avoid complications and manage tasks better in the future.

What Makes an After-Action Review?

If you are considering incorporating AARs, it might be good to take small steps first. Especially when you know there is going to be some form of resistance (you know your team best!). I would strongly suggest having one-to-one discussions before slowly widening the circle to include all the stakeholders. However, an AAR needs to have a structure to be effective and efficient, especially when you are looking for solutions.

As a Producer/Project Manager, you can customise the review to fit your objectives because the structure is modular. One important thing is to ensure that there is proper documentation of the findings and discussions from AARs. This ensures the preservation of information and knowledge for future reference.

There are 5 key components that I will always include in AARs:

1. Reflection on Objectives

Begin by revisiting the original objectives and goals of the creative project. This component sets the stage for evaluating whether the team achieved what it set out to accomplish. Reflecting on objectives helps align the discussion with the initial creative vision.

2. Process Analysis

Delve into the creative process itself. Discuss the methods, techniques, and approaches employed during the project. Analyse how these aspects contributed to or hindered the creative outcomes. Understanding the intricacies of the process is crucial for refining and optimising future creative endeavours.

3. Challenges and Setbacks Analysis

Equally important is a candid discussion about the challenges and setbacks faced during the project. Analyse the root causes of difficulties and setbacks, fostering a transparent environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their experiences and learning from setbacks.

4. Decision-Making Evaluation:

Creative projects often involve numerous decisions, from concept development to execution. Evaluate the decision-making processes within the team. Discuss why certain creative choices were made, the factors influencing those decisions, and whether alternative approaches could have been considered.

5. Team Dynamics and Communication

Assess the effectiveness of team collaboration and communication. Explore how well team members worked together, shared ideas, and communicated feedback. Understanding team dynamics helps identify areas for improvement in collaboration and ensures a cohesive creative workflow.

6. Lesson Learning and Best Practices

Extract lessons learned from the project and distil them into best practices. Capture insights into what worked well and why, as well as areas that could be improved. This component forms the basis for continuous improvement in the creative process.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: Who should participate in an AAR session?
A: AAR sessions should include all relevant stakeholders and team members who were involved in the project. This includes individuals from different roles and levels within the organisation to ensure diverse perspectives are considered.

Q: When is the best time to conduct an AAR?
A: AARs are typically conducted shortly after the completion of a project or a significant project phase. It is essential to strike a balance between conducting the AAR promptly to capture fresh insights and allowing enough time for a thorough reflection on the project.

Q: How long does an AAR session usually last?
A: The duration of an AAR session can vary based on the complexity and scope of the project. However, it is recommended to allocate sufficient time for a thorough discussion without rushing. A typical AAR session might last anywhere from one to two hours. Stick to being objective, minimise small talk, and be detailed whenever possible.

Q: How do you handle resistance to feedback during an AAR?
A: Addressing resistance to feedback requires establishing a culture that values constructive criticism and improvement. Emphasise that the AAR is not about assigning blame but about learning collectively. Encourage open communication and highlight the positive outcomes of implementing feedback.

Q: Can AARs be conducted for both successful and unsuccessful projects?
A: Absolutely. AARs are valuable for all types of projects, regardless of their outcome. Celebrating successes helps reinforce positive practices while analysing challenges provides opportunities for growth and improvement.


Wrapping Up!

Personally, the After-Action Review is not just a reflective exercise. It is a strategic imperative. By embracing the insights gained from an AAR, creative teams can harness the power of collective learning, cultivate a culture of innovation, and propel themselves towards sustained success. The AAR is not merely a tool for analysing the past. It is a compass guiding creative endeavours towards a future brimming with possibilities.


EXPERT TIPS!

1. Prepare in Advance!

Before the AAR session, gather relevant data, documentation, and key performance indicators. This preparation ensures that the discussion is focused and based on concrete information. Please avoid making assumptions because that will lead to unnecessary conflicts.

2. Follow a Structured Agenda!

Use a structured agenda to guide the AAR session. This might include reviewing the project’s goals, examining the processes and strategies employed, and discussing specific outcomes. Having a clear structure helps keep the discussion focused and productive. I have been through AARs where the sessions diverge into personal conversations and unrelated topics. It is important to stay true to the objective and remain productive.

3. Establish a Positive Environment!

Create a safe and open space for team members to share their thoughts. Emphasise that the AAR is not about blame but about learning and improvement. Encourage constructive feedback and assure participants that their input is valuable.

4. Focus on Both Successes and Challenges!

While it is crucial to identify areas for improvement, we should also celebrate successes. Acknowledge what went well and why it was successful. This positive reinforcement boosts morale and provides a balanced perspective on the project. Ensure that there is proper documentation for both sides of the coin as well. This creates a more comprehensive learning experience for future reference.

5. Close with a Forward-Looking Focus!

Conclude the AAR session by emphasising the forward-looking aspect. Discuss how the lessons learned will be applied in future projects and reiterate the team’s commitment to continuous improvement. Remember to acknowledge everyone’s efforts!


Not sure what other components can be thrown into the mix? Write to me at hello@masonry-studios.com with the header ‘AAR Components’ and I’ll be more than happy to share more!

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Zulkifli Md Zaid

Author Zulkifli Md Zaid

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