After-Action Adaptive Action


To work in complex environments, you and your team must learn continually. It is not enough for individuals to learn for themselves, the team also needs a discipline for learning together. Based on a practice in the US Air Force, we encourage teams to surface their failures and concerns after every significant effort or event. By acknowledging and talking about their experiences, the group can see, understand, and influence patterns to improve performance in their next engagement.


Action in complexity requires innovation, and innovation requires occasional failures. Some people even think, “If you haven’t failed, you will never succeed  because you aren’t taking enough risks.” The After-Action Adaptive Action is a simple process that you and your team can use to pause, reflect, and capture your learnings after you complete an activity.

So What?

After a project or initiative, bring all the players together in shared inquiry. Begin by describing the goal or purpose of the activity you just completed, then ask each person, in turn, to answer a series of questions. Beginning with the person “at the top,” each person completes an Adaptive Action cycle to reflect on their experiences, to share their learning, and to commit to their future action.

The After-Action Adaptive Action questions are:

  1. WHAT did you observe?
  2. SO WHAT did you learn?
  3. NOW WHAT will you do in future?

To be most effective, the team should follow some rules to set the context for learning and action:

  • Give feedback ONLY to yourself and the people above your level. This ensures that there is no blaming or shaming for people who have no power to respond or to make a change. Leaders hold the responsibility to set conditions for others to be successful, and they are ultimately accountable for the performance of all. Sometimes corrective performance feedback is required, but it should happen in one-on-one, private sessions between the leader and the staff member.
  • Stay in inquiry. It is easy to fall into explanations of how something was done or defense of why it was done. The more fruitful exploration is inquiry about what happened and how it might have been different. It can be helpful to follow the Rules for Inquiry:
    • Turn judgement into curiosity
    • Turn conflict into shared exploration
    • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
    • Turn assumptions into questions
  • Focus forward. Nothing you say will change the past, so it is much more productive to focus on what will happen in the future. In HSD, we call this “focus forward.” Acknowledge what happened (as you see it,) but move quickly into learnings and opportunities for working differently in future.

After everyone has spoken, the leaders should summarize, and the group should record their individual and collective commitments.

Now What?

The best, and often only, way to learn the practice of HSD is to practice it. Begin today. Consider some activity, project, event, or initiative that you or your team is engaging in right now. Use part of your next meeting to practice an After-Action Adaptive Action. When it is completed, reflect together on what worked and what might have worked better. Then, make it a habit for collaborative learning and performance improvement.

Join a global network of learning about HSD!

As a member of the network, you will receive weekly notices of events, opportunities, and links to blogs and other learning opportunities. Additionally, you will have the option to unsubscribe at any point, should you decide to do so.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.