COVID-19 Mid-Event After Action Review – Now’s the Time

Michael Bratton, MBCI Michael Bratton, MBCI | May 13, 2020

This article is the first in a two-part series, focused on what organizations can and should be doing as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to progress.

Now that we are past the initial response to COVID-19, I want to provide insight on how you can prepare your organization for what comes next.

As a business continuity or crisis management professional, are you struggling to figure out exactly what can be done now to continue to add value and improve effectiveness?

Considering the ambiguous nature of this event, are you unsure about what guidance you should (and shouldn’t) provide to the leadership team when it comes to “standing down”?

Or, maybe you want to make sure you capture feedback from this real-world event, but you’re hesitant to approach that right now?

Today, I want to share a framework with you that leverages a mid-event After Action Review (AAR) to start capturing lessons learned from your initial COVID-19 response and help address these questions and challenges.

 

INITIAL COVID-19 RESPONSE

As a business continuity consultant, I have been fortunate to observe this event unfold through a unique lens. Since mid-March, I’ve talked to many different business continuity professionals, spanning multiple industries, geographies, and organizational sizes.

While each conversation was different, almost everyone seemed to have the same reaction to the current state of the pandemic. They were pleased they were able to successfully leverage their crisis management, crisis communications, and business continuity strategies, and they were thrilled with the amount of focus continuity planning was getting from their organization’s top leadership. However, they struggled with where they could continue to add value, what they should be doing, and when to resume any of their normal preparedness activities since they were in the middle of a disruption.

With this in mind, I borrowed a tool from our Business Continuity Operating System (BCOS) engagement plan tool and started asking questions as a means of processing this challenge hoping to identify solutions for anyone struggling with these core concerns. While it isn’t a panacea, I grabbed my notepad and wrote down a few things:

  • Now is the time to figure out what worked well and what didn’t – not six months from now when everyone has forgotten what was necessary to respond to the event
  • A mid-event AAR would be a great approach to get candid feedback throughout the organization
  • A collective approach is required to answer the question “When do we return to normal?” There is no one answer (or one person who can answer the question) but BC professionals have tools and structures that can tease this out and the AAR can help with this process.

I’ve leveraged this approach with my clients, and it’s helped them continue to lead their organization thru the response effort and enabled them to confidently provide input to help direct senior leadership.

Let’s explore what a mid-event AAR would look like.

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EXECUTING AN EFFECTIVE AFTER-ACTION REVIEW

The AAR has many variants. I’ve heard organizations call it a “post-incident review”, “hot-wash”, and a “post-mortem,” just to name a few. At the simplest level and regardless of what you call it, this is a session to gather key participants to discuss what is going well, what isn’t, and what needs to be improved.

Conducting an AAR may seem like a no-brainer for some, especially anyone with a military background, but I’ve found that with the current event, the approach and methods of conducting the AAR will vary based on your audience and topic of conversation.

Let’s look a little deeper on how to conduct an AAR effectively.

Step 1 – Confirm Your High-Level Objectives

Always start by thinking through what the information is for and how it will be used. It isn’t very useful to go out and conduct AARs if there isn’t a good sense of why the information is being gathered in the first place and how that will feed into future activities. I propose starting with a few objectives that span three broad categories. These include:

  • Tactical Objectives – Those objectives related to individual business continuity teams or those designed for specific departments (facilities, security, etc.). Examples include:
    • Identify response strengths, weaknesses, and improvement opportunities for business continuity response and recovery
    • Capture any strategies that weren’t pre-planned and had to be developed at the onset of the event
    • Document any unique equipment requests or requests requiring a physical workspace
    • Determine the need for teams to return to a physical space (if working remotely)
    • Conversely, identify any roadblocks that would prevent extended work from home
  • Operational Objectives – Those objectives related to the broader response and recovery structure, higher-level strategies, business operations, and maintaining command and control. Examples include:
      • Identify response strengths, weaknesses, and improvement opportunities for crisis/incident management teams
      • Evaluate the effectiveness of organizational communication
    • Document any required changes/updates to the crisis response structure and team membership
    • Identify potential impacts to the organization, particularly to business operations, if the event becomes protracted or if there is a second wave
    • Identify considerations for a phased return to any physical locations
    • Evaluate actions taken concerning areas that have required significant shifts from normal operations (travel, absence/leave, facilities, etc.) and how those decisions can be “unwound”
  • Strategic Objectives – Very high-level objectives. These objectives often center around gathering information to document and eventually address more strategic risks that were exposed by the event and addressing the idea of a “new normal”. Example strategic objectives include:
    • Identify response strengths, weaknesses, and improvement opportunities for the organization, as a whole
    • Identify any decisions or actions taken that may need to become a “new normal” and should be used to update organizational policies
    • Address how the organization should handle employees that have been furloughed or had hour reduced
    • Assess top-level communication to employees and investors and use lessons learned to inform future communications
    • Identify new risks or opportunities that have emerged as a result of the event

These sample objectives are not all-inclusive. If you are struggling, I recommend taking a look at our COVID-19 Return to Normal Toolkit and reaching out to others in your organization. I highly recommended sitting down with your executive sponsor to talk through any other expectations.

Step 2 – Identify the Appropriate Audience(s)

Once you have figured out the core objectives that will frame your approach, the next step is to figure out who you need to collect feedback from. I tend to break up my audience into three groups:

  1. Continuity Teams and Individual Departments
  2. Crisis Management Team (CMT) and Mid-level Operational Leaders
  3. Executive Management

If you are an adherent to Avalution’s Business Continuity Operating System, these audiences are segmented out in your engagement plan. The audiences for your monthly stakeholder meetings, quarterly steering committee meetings, and annual meetings align to the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, respectively.

This is also where you will likely need to exercise some discretion in terms of your approach to group some of these conversations, especially when it comes to those tactical teams like individual departments and continuity teams. The scope of your effort can expand rapidly if you aren’t careful.

For tactical areas, you need to determine if you should talk to everyone (or organize teams into logical groupings to do a few workshops) or if a representative sample can still yield the information you need.

For the operational and strategic conversations, I would turn to the members of your crisis management team and executive steering committee. There is also the possibility you may only meet with one or two of these audiences to meet your objectives.

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Step 3 – Structure the Conversation and Execute Your Approach

After figuring out “who” will be engaged, it is now time to get out there and start meeting with stakeholders. These conversations may look different based on the audience you are engaging. For departments and business continuity teams, workshops consisting of similar teams or one-on-ones (where groupings are not possible) is a good way to gather responses.

For those operational-level leaders, inclusive of the CMT, using the existing CMT meeting structure is an effective approach. In other words, the AAR conversation can be facilitated by having all of the CMT members participate together, so members can “play off” the responses of others. For this conversation, I find a structured meeting starting with what’s working / what’s not working is a good starting point, augmented with key questions and talking points that you would have developed as you documented your objectives.

For strategic leaders and executive management, you may want to adapt the approach to move from a workshop or structured meeting to something that fosters more collaboration. For those MBAs out there, using a SWOT approach is an effective means of facilitation for this audience. For those unfamiliar with the approach, a SWOT analysis is a structured activity to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This approach can be applied directly to the event to catalog what went well and what didn’t, as well as highlight where there are improvement opportunities and where the event has exposed new threats and risks. SWOT analyses tend to be the most effective with input from a senior-level audience.

You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t talked to specific agenda items or questions. This would take a lot more space than what is included in this article. However, I have created an editable COVID-19 Return to Normal Toolkit for your use that provides sample agendas (Business Continuity and Leadership Focused) as well as a number of considerations and guiding questions to help facilitate your workshops and structured conversations.

Step 4 – Develop a Tentative Plan Forward and Capture Action Items

If you follow this approach, you will end up with a good list of what went well, what didn’t go well, and a whole host of continual improvement opportunities.

These findings, as well as outputs from specific questioning around resource requirements, the urgency to return to physical workspaces, and communication requirements (as well as a host of other topics) can then be used to start formulating tentative plans to “return to normal” and ultimately answer the question of what comes next. With this said, be open to the idea that your return to normal plan will probably have to incorporate a few “what if” type scenarios:

  • What if quarantines are lifted in the next few weeks?
  • What if quarantines continue for the next few months?
  • What if there is a second wave?

The outputs from these AARs will give you a good starting point to start planning for what’s to come.

 

BUT WAIT?!?

One of the primary concerns I hear is that program managers are worried about “bothering the business” too much because of the pace in which they are operating. While I think this can be a valid concern, we can also be better about dispelling this concern by being more effective in how we frame, via the value proposition of the outcomes of, these conversations.

For example, we had one client that had to put almost all of its staff on customer service calls to help deal with the increased workload. Many organizations have had to perform similar, out-of-the-ordinary measures. Therefore, in these situations and because the concern associated with time constraints and capacity is a very valid concern and reason to push back on “mid-crisis” AAR. In other cases, it is more perception of bothering the business.

In cases where we framed it as being an opportunity to summarize all the things they had been doing, I’ve found people more than happy to talk through how they responded to the pandemic. Plus – let’s be honest – with lots of people working remotely, people are craving some genuine interaction! You don’t have to run these meetings as low-energy check-ins – change the way we pitch our craft.

 

LOOKING FOR MORE?

This article focused on how BC professionals could execute an AAR to help their organizations develop a plan for what comes next. If you are looking for more guidance on these topics or need help in other related program improvement areas, don’t hesitate to contact us.

 

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