Repairing a damaged partnership
Using an after action review (AAR) for a partnership turnaround
Dear Remora - “I don’t ever want to work with them again.” That is what our Engineering Director told me during our one-on-one. She was talking about a partner that helped us to close a huge new customer which we are now supporting together. I heard similar from our partner. He sent me a text that said simply “this isn’t working.”
I am still convinced that this partnership can produce more wins. But both sides need to learn from our missteps.
How do I keep this partnership going amid this conflict?
Dear Caught-in-the-Middle -
You say that you believe this partnership holds great potential. If that’s true, then you need to bring both sides together … even if they come together kicking and screaming. You can help both sides grow from this experience. But you’ll need to step up and initiate the changes that are needed.
I appreciate what you’re up against because I’ve overcome very similar challenges. I turned those partnerships around by enlisting both sides in a constructive dialogue about what happened and how we can do better together. An after action review (AAR) can be a valuable way to initiate that dialogue.
What is an After Action Review (AAR)?
An after action review (AAR) is similar to similar a post-mortem … but better. An AAR is more focused on the lessons for the future. Also, an AAR also offers a more positive framing than a “post-mortem,” which literally means “after death” and originated from studying dead bodies. Not exactly the kind of tone you want to set for this partnership.
AARs originated in US Army and have been adopted by NASA and among manufacturers like General Electric, Motorola and others. In the technology world, many technical teams run similar processes. But I am baffled as to why more commercial teams (sales, marketing, partnerships) do not run a more rigorous review of their performance - from deals and acquisitions to new product launches.
A typical AAR addresses four questions:
What did we expect to happen?
What actually occurred?
What went well and why?
What can we improve upon and how?
Here you’ll find an AAR template from Asana and here is a helpful AAR guide from NASA. Below are more AAR resources from Wharton and the Harvard Business Review.
Your roles as a (partnership) leader
An AAR is usually conducted within an organization where everyone is committed to improving together. But your task is more challenging. You have to convince two organizations to work on this process together. This won’t be easy. Success will require that you play multiple roles, including organizational historian, salesperson, facilitator, author and operator. You will need to be a chameleon on plaid who can adapt as the situation requires.
If the name “after action review” feels too formal then reframe this process in a way that works for you and your stakeholders; call it a “partnership debrief” or “partnership review.” The name is secondary, the cross-team collaboration and follow-through is what matters most.
Whatever you choose to call it, here is a step-by-step approach for using an ARR to turnaround your damaged partnership.
Crafting your partnership after action review (AAR)
Step 1: Collect the facts
First, you need to get to the bottom of what actually happened. Gather the key stakeholders on your side. Ideally you will assemble them at the same time so they can build off each others perspectives. Use the four questions provided above to guide the discussion.
Your role in drafting your company’s AAR is that of a neutral “organizational historian.” Focus your x-functional team on answering these questions as objectively as possible. The purpose of this exercise is to unearth lessons learned, not to lay blame.
In kicking off this discussion, it is useful to acknowledge the charged feelings that may exist. Here’s what that can sound like:
“I know there are strong emotions on both sides and plenty of blame to go around. I believe that this partnership still has enormous potential to grow our business. My view is that great organizations - and great partnerships - become great by analyzing when things go wrong and committing to doing better. That’s why I’m asking for your active participation in this process.”
Step 2: Give your partner context
Once you have a drafted your company’s AAR, you want to enlist your partner in having a dialogue and document that captures perspectives from both companies. But you’ll need to give them context first. Even if you’ve done your very best to make it an objective summary, your team’s sentiments are still one-sided. Without proper context, your partner will not likely to respond positively to seeing a one-sided partnership AAR document.
Here is what the message to your partner can sound like:
I recognize there were challenges on our last project together. I know your team felt those challenges and ours did too. We take this partnership very seriously. And that is why held an internal review to discuss how we can do better next time. I’d like to share notes with you from our discussion. As you will see, it has some valuable lessons but it is one-sided. That is why I’m reaching out. We would like your team to review our notes then join us in a discussion about the project and how we can do better together next time. Would you be open to this? Do you think your team would be open to participating?
If your partner isn’t open to engaging in this process then it is a signal that this partnership may not hold as much potential as you think.
Step 3: Facilitate a cross-company dialogue
Bringing both teams together for a call or, ideally, an in-person meeting is essential. You will want a skilled facilitator. If you haven’t facilitated previously you may want to appoint someone else. The facilitator should set some ground rules at the outset that drive the group towards a productive discussion (e.g. no devices, active listening, speak with “I” statements, etc).
Step 4: Turn lessons learned into an action plan
Now that both sides have come together to the key AAR questions, it is time to create a final version of your collective AAR that blends together the perspectives of stakeholders on both sides. It should detail key findings and owners for future projects - not individuals but teams - so that there is a playbook that can be used in the future on the next project that your partnership will need to tackle.
Step 5: Implement the action plan together
The purpose isn’t to create a document that is never actually used. The goal is a to create a collection of learnings that turn into actions which make the partnership operate more effectively. To that end, you will need to become an active advocate for the changes that are needed. You might circulate the lessons learned at the kick-off of the next project you work on together. You might be share lessons to internal slack channels or knowledge pages, shared folders, etc. You’ll have to stay on top of key stakeholders and remind them of the learnings.
Your role as a steward or “gardener” of the partnership does not end once the AAR is created. Your role is just entering a new phase.