Helmuth von Moltke, a 19th century Prussian field marshal, famously declared that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” For state and local government leaders toiling through the myriad challenges of reopening, recovering and resetting their organizations and communities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this axiom rings as true today as ever. Public servants have met and engaged an unexpected enemy, and that enemy is testing every aspect of service planning and delivery. Borrowing another concept from the military, the time to establish a rigorous practice and culture of after action reviews (AAR) has arrived.
Simply put, an AAR is a structured process of reflection, organizational learning and knowledge sharing conducted both during and after significant events take place, directly involving the people most closely connected to the event under review. An AAR’s purpose is to capture and immediately apply lessons learned, enabling corrective action as the battle rages. Effective AARs are future-focused; not about the allocation of blame or the deflection of accountability. They are immediate, not post-hoc. As practiced by the U.S. Army and, increasingly, in many corporate enterprises, the AAR addresses five key questions:
The application of a holistic – and unflinching – AAR process to monitor and improve every aspect of an organization’s strategy, structure, people, processes and technology is important to ensure the institutions on the front line of public service delivery emerge from the crisis not only intact, but strengthened.
Most cities, counties, utility districts and regional authorities of all types have adopted and implemented complex sets of interconnected planning documents and policies. These can include multi-year strategic plans, financial plans, service plans, land use plans, economic development plans, thoroughfare plans, utility plans, park plans, emergency response plans, risk management plans and many others. Underpinning each plan, policy and priority is an equally varied set of assumptions, estimates and projections, documented or otherwise.
It is unlikely that all of these plans were activated in direct response to the pandemic outbreak, but an AAR could reveal that some, if not many, require revisiting, rethinking and retooling. Examples of essential questions to ask could include:
An objective re-assessment of the foundational planning documents used to guide current decision-making may lead to a wholesale re-imagination of what the organization’s future should be.
For an organization to obtain optimal results in times of both normalcy and crisis, reporting relationships and lines of communication should be clear and the allocation of resources should be aligned with strategic priorities. In addition, overlap, redundancy and ambiguity of responsibilities should be minimized, and leaders at all levels must be both competent and empowered to act. AAR discussion topics might include:
If your organization has been effective in performing under difficult circumstances it has faced, it did so because of its people at every level. Simply put, was your organization prepared to lead, execute, review and amend approaches in order to react in real time? While well-run governments pride themselves in their preparedness for the unexpected, events such as COVID-19 are the supreme tests of resiliency and reflect workforce capacity, culture, communication and training – the fundamentals needed when the status quo breaks down. In a world where disruptions promise to become more frequent and challenging, the capacity to respond organically through focus on the priorities needed at all levels of the organization will become ever more important. Key questions to ask include:
State of the art processes and technology are often out of reach due to budget, talent and/or time constraints. However, systems that “made do” in the past may prove inadequate or too inflexible to be able to meet emergency needs now and in the future. Wide-sweeping changes may continue to be out of reach, but some process or technology options may provide better service and efficiencies as well as improved emergency response. Consider the following:
Adopting a practice of rigorous, near-real-time AAR instills a culture of continuous improvement and provides an opportunity to better prepare for the next unexpected enemy. By systematically identifying hot spots for improvement, our communities will be better prepared, our citizens better protected, and our organizations more capable for those that serve and are served by state and local governments.