Why Did It Happen?

In participative learning, it is important that each learning activity be debriefed to give the participants an opportunity to reflect on their experience and reinforce their learning.

It is just as important to have those involved in a critical work situation take time to assess whether the actions taken were effective and, if not, what should be done differently in the future.

I’ve always thought that it made sense to debrief a learning activity or management situation by asking these three questions:

1. What went well?

2. What didn’t go well, and why not?

3. What did you learn?

Recently, I read about an approach that the U.S. Army allegedly uses, called an “After Action Review.” This Review also uses three questions for debriefing purposes, but the first two questions differ significantly from my questions:

1. What happened?

2. Why do you think it happened?

3. And what can we learn from it?

Upon reflection, I prefer these questions over my own for three primary reasons.

First, my first two questions approach a situation from a black or white perspective. They require a judgment call: either things went well, or they didn’t go well.

Second, my questions do not delve into why things might have gone well. They only ask why things did not go well.

Third, my last question focuses in on what the individual learned from the situation, rather than on what anyone who will encounter a similar situation in the future needs to keep in mind.

The After Action Review questions generate a much more complete and rich narrative. The first question does not ask respondents to force aspects of a situation into good or bad boxes. When they respond to “What happened?”, they have to describe the entire situation from a factual and objective standpoint.

“Why do you think it happened?” requires respondents to reflect on the situation as a whole, looking at causal relationships. The question cannot be adequately answered with a subjective response. Instead, it asks for an objective assessment of the situation.

“What can we learn from it?” moves reflection away from the impact on the individual. Instead, it broadens the learning to identify more universal truths that others can apply to similar circumstances.


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