A Template for Learning from Crises

Shaw on Lessons LearnedAn often overlooked crisis communications tool – which has more power than many people give it credit for – is the after action report (AAR), or “lessons learned report,” if that sounds more familiar. A well-written AAR has several inherent benefits:

  • It provides your leadership with a clear picture of you/your team’s important incident actions.
  • If you partnered with individuals or entities outside your organization to mitigate disaster, it can “close the loop” on that particular partnership, and provide those entities with the takeaways you deemed most valuable.
  • AARs affect organizational preparation for the next crisis by bolstering the parts of your plan that worked, and providing recommendations for sections of your plan that can be improved.
  • A communications AAR can be incorporated into the whole-incident AAR to affect big change in the way that organizations conduct incident response. Here’s a Hurricane Katrina example, and here’s a Deepwater Horizon oil spill example.
  • AARs preserve your “corporate knowledge” of best practices that new team members or managers can reference.

In the realm of professional writing, AARs aren’t too difficult, as long as you prepare. They should be as concise as possible, but also contain everything that is meaningful for the next incident. My former response team’s crisis communications AAR for 165 days spent on-scene for Hurricane Katrina response and recovery consisted of 22 pages; several weeks spent at a major oil spill in the San Francisco Bay prompted a three-pager. Those were big incidents, though – most run-of-the-mill incidents require a one-page wrap-up. Here’s a few tried-and-tested tips for creating useful AARs:

  1. Manage expectations up front. Your team members and partners should know ahead of time that the communications aspect of an incident is only “case closed” when the AAR is completed and forwarded to the appropriate readers. If you have a crisis plan, write it in.
  2. Keep track of what you do at an incident. Even a one-day incident can be hectic, with many moving parts. Keeping track of noteworthy events as they happen can eliminate the frustration of trying to recall what happened after the fact. Job aids are good for this; I bring a bundle of incident command system daily unit log forms to every crisis. Track significant items only, and it’s an easy-to-manage part of your job.
  3. Gather input from your team as soon as possible. People come and go from prolonged incidents. Have them jot down three things that went well (and why), and three things that could be improved (and how) before they walk out the door to go back to their regular jobs. If you have a team of people at the incident until it’s done, facilitate a short brainstorming session – or, hotwash – to gather a more robust list of good and bad.
  4. Choose an AAR format and stick with it. My go-to for years has been a simple three-section format. Section 1 is a summary of the entire event from the crisis communications perspective – if you write it like a news release (i.e., inverted pyramid, and include the 5 Ws & H), you’re on the right track. Section 2 is a bullet list of successes, and why they were. Section 3 is a bullet list of lessons learned – what didn’t go so well, and how it can be improved for the next go-round.
  5. Good things can come in small packages. I’ve learned from incidents that lasted three hours, and those that have lasted three months. If something occurs that disrupts your organization’s normal flow of operations — i.e., a crisis — it’s worth capturing lessons learned in an AAR.
  6. Focus on processes, not people. Everyone makes mistakes during the “fog of war” that is crisis incident response – fight the urge to use your AAR as a tool to call people out. For example, if feedback you received from the team was, “the people doing social media for the incident were horrible, and had no idea what they were doing,” your process-focused recommendation for a social media lesson learned could be, “SMEM training for anyone who may do crisis communications for the organization at the next incident will improve performance.”
  7. Brief your results. A concise AAR may need some explanation or a question and answer period with your managers or leadership. Forwarding a pdf via email or printing your AAR and putting it in the boss’ inbox may work for some AARs, but if you’re recommending institutional change based on lessons learned, you’ll need face time.
  8. Implement your lessons learned, dang it! A colleague and I were on the phone earlier this week, and the topic of lessons learned from incidents and disaster exercises came up. He referred to many contained in AARs as “lessons observed,” in the absence of implementation. If recommendations to improve your processes for crisis response is worth writing about in your AAR, take your own advice and make the changes to your plan!

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