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Brain circuits

Rethinking team learning

Published 1 October 2021 in Brain circuits • 4 min read

The most common tool, adopted from the US military is the “After-Action Review” (AAR). After the conclusion of a project or episode, the team shares what went well, what didn’t go well, and what should be done differently next time. This process is recommended regardless of success or failure. There is no doubt that for project teams with a clear task and goal, this tool will work well. Five questions ensure that lessons are learnt, and changes made for the next time. However, for more complex projects with ambiguous or changing goals, the AAR is limited by two things: its timing, and its focus on task.

Timing the review: After an event is over, people and teams are already rewriting history to justify the outcome. That history will be different according to the emotional end-state of the team; these emotional end-states can alter the narrative of what actually happened. If the narrative is positive, they tend to justify their success based on everything and anything they have done. The outcome is justified or rationalized, without thinking critically. If the narrative is not so positive, they will wonder whether it’s worth going into difficult issues now that the project is over. If the team wants to move forward and forget about the difficult moments, they will. Why raise the uncomfortable stuff now? They may gloss over anything that might have been. Different explanations will emerge in private conversations.

The focus on task: The AAR tool is designed to keep emotions at bay and focus purely on task-related problems, rather than the relationships and emotions that also affect outcomes. That can give people the sense that everything is rational and that any mistakes were plausible errors of awareness, interpretation, or judgement. In this way, project outcomes are rationalized, giving the team the belief that if they had done something differently, they would have performed better. While that makes perfect sense, we know that when emotions are suppressed, they tend to trigger defense mechanisms that distort reality. Emotions and feelings must be included in team reviews.

When and how to engage? People often think team development needs to happen at transition points, but if you do an after-action review at the end of the day, people just want to go home. The most effective team development appears to happen when they are right in the middle of something. To this end, leaders should rethink how they create learning as an integrated part of their teams. Learning dialogues should be spontaneous, at midpoints, at start points, as well as at the end. They should invite emotional release so that the less distorted and perhaps less rational narratives can emerge.

For example, if you are in a meeting and everybody is looking very bored or frustrated or checked out, perhaps it’s a good time to say, “We’re going to take an hour here and just talk about exactly what’s going on in this group.” That is the time where you want to look at getting the team unstuck and helping them get their energy back.

Pull out a flip chart and take the temperature of every team member, find out what they are feeling at that exact moment. Then write it up on the chart – it changes and engages the dynamic because people hold so much stuff inside in a group, there needs to be some mechanisms for release.

Checking in often will save time in the future: This isn’t a one-off, but something that needs to be integrated into your routines. The dynamics of a group move in a way such that this will give some relief. And although people will move forward after such dialogues, they will eventually become stuck again.

Team leaders also need to set aside half a day every three months, or a full day every six months, where you really focus on team dialogues. This may seem like a big time investment, but without it you will probably spend more time on your primary task. If you are not setting aside time once a week, then at least do it every three to six months. This doesn’t mean conflict will go away, but people feel more engaged because you are talking about what’s really going on for them.


Ben Bryant

Ben Bryant

Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD

Ben Bryant is a is a highly skilled educator, executive team coach, and speaker. He is Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD in Lausanne and Director of the IMD CEO Learning Center and the Transformational Leader program. He holds the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership.


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