Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 281
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

After-Event Reviews

Researcher modifies a review technique and explores its value.

War is a grim business that doesn�t give you many choices. When you�re fighting at home and protecting your families from an enemy who won�t give up, you�d better be good at what you do. The Israeli Defense Force is good at what they do.

Imagine, for example, an Israeli night patrol in the no-man�s land that lies along a disputed border looking for enemy forces attempting to infiltrate and carry out terrorist attacks. These terrorists could defend against such a patrol by killing the commanding officer. Without the head, they might reason, the Israeli troops would be lost and easy to pick off, and the terrorist mission could go forward. But that would not work with an Israeli patrol. Each member is trained to carry out the patrol�s mission, and each member is capable of taking command should the need arise.

Do you suppose this capability is because Israeli soldiers are smarter or bigger or more numerous than their enemies? A more likely explanation lies in the training they receive.

For over a half century, the Israeli Defense Force has perfected their training approaches, and one technique of which they are very proud is called an After-Event Review (AER). An AER is a systematic examination of the thinking and actions that contributed to an outcome - an event. Decision by decision, thought by thought, the AER reconstructs the steps that led to an outcome, and by doing so, exposes the errors that caused the most problems. In future, similar situations, different thinking and different decisions can be used and, hopefully, lead to more successful outcomes.

After-event reviews are a thoroughly ingrained feature of the culture of the Israeli Defense Force. Everyone connected with this force is accustomed to using them to review their own performance and that of others, and they use them to their fullest advantage. And they are proud of it. No, they are not afraid to confront their own errors, and yes, it does contribute to future success.

Shmuel Ellis, from Tel Aviv University, is familiar with the AER technique, but he noticed a curious feature of it that perplexed him. He noticed that the Israeli Defense Force uses it almost exclusively on events that were considered failures. Successful events do not prompt an AER. But learning to avoid failure is different from learning how to succeed. He reasoned that expanding AERs to include successful events would improve this technique and ultimately improve performance, and he carried out a study to find out if he was right.

Ellis created a new AER procedure that included the review of successes as well as failures, and then he tested the new technique with two navigation training classes. He found a significant advantage for the new AER procedure. He also found an enthusiastic reception among the Israeli commanding officers who used it and embraced the new technique as a clear improvement over their old procedures. It is rare for a research finding to find its way into practical application as quickly as Ellis� innovation. He was very pleased.

But Ellis wasn�t satisfied merely to introduce an improvement. He wanted to better understand the technique. How do AERs improve performance? Why does considering success improve it? Ellis chose 10 recruits from each of the training classes and interviewed them at length, and he found the answers he sought.

An AER begins with a soldier explaining in great detail the steps he/she carried out that led to an outcome. This explanation is given to a commanding officer who prompts the recruit with �why� questions designed to elaborate � to expand the detail of these explanations and include thinking and feelings at crucial moments. These explanations usually provide their own guidance for improvement, and they force recruits to think about what they are doing. This allows them to notice crucial points they had missed, and it encourages them to form �if-then� rules to guide future behavior, and when AERs included successes, there was a greater desire to find root causes. An AER is a guided investigation of past experience.

In business settings, the most important decisions we make involve personnel, who we hire, promote, or let go. We usually follow careful procedures when we make such decisions to minimize mistakes, but every step of these procedures is carried out by a thinking and feeling person. An AER that examines personnel decisions can expose thinking and feeling that spoils our careful procedures and leads to mistakes. When there is success, it can do precisely the same thing and find patterns that lead to improvement. Either way, a decision-maker who exposes himself/herself to the AER process is likely to learn more about himself/herself that will improve performance. Professor Ellis recommends it.

Reference: Ellis, Shmuel and Inbar Davidi (2005) After-Event Reviews: Drawing Lessons From Successful and Failed Experience. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (5), 857-871.

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