Today, I spoke with Ron Gasper, retired Navy SEAL and member of the prestigious Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU). In our discussion, Ron shared one of the rarely talked about but highly effective practices that help to keep the SEAL teams at the top of their game: After Action Debriefs and After Action Reports.
Click here to listen to the podcast recording of this article.
Sales and marketing teams can use the After Action Debriefs and After Action Reports practices to significantly enhance success.
Ron Gasper: “High-performing teams are always innovating and challenging status quo. High-performing teams have high-performing team members and documented standard operating procedures (SOPs).”
After every training exercise and mission, it is customary for SEAL teams to regroup and discuss opportunities for improvement. These “After Action Debriefs” are the first step in performance enhancement.
The objective of each Debrief is to:
- Measure performance against defined objectives
- Identify specific areas for improvement (people, processes, tools)
- Document specifics
Following the Debrief is the After Action Report. The report is the formal written analysis of the Debrief findings, including recommendations for enhancements to the SOPs.
The objective of the After Action Report is to:
- Formally document findings
- Provide recommendations for improvement
- Assign accountability for implementation
To learn more about how to leverage the After Action Debrief and After Action Report in your organization, listen to the podcast recording or read the transcribed conversation below.
The following infographic outlines the key elements to a successful implementation of the After Action Debrief and Report process.
To download a free poster-sized pdf of this infographic click here.
Hello and thank you for joining us today on our podcast on how to improve sales and marketing alignment. Our conversation today is about “After Action Debriefs and After Action Reports” and how marketing and sales teams can leverage a tool used by the Navy SEALs for their own success.
Today I have Ron joining us. Ron is a retired Navy SEAL. While serving with the SEALs, Ron was part of the exclusive Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also referred to as DEVGRU. Ron was awarded the Bronze Star for valor in combat action. Ron is also the owner and chief instructor of Validus, a personal protection and firearms training school in Cleveland, Ohio. Ron is also an active speaker and a business consultant on high-performing teams. Ron, it's great to have you here today. How are you doing?
Hey, Chris, how are you doing? Great to be here.
Excellent. Ron, a couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be in the audience of one of your presentations. In the presentation, you stated that “practice doesn't make perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect.” I thought that was really interesting. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Yeah, sure. That was big in the SEAL teams and it’s a concept I use with firearms training at Validus. I don't think it matters if you're swinging a golf club, throwing a football or training for war. You can do something a hundred times because you’re motivated and it's great to be motivated. But, if you're doing it wrong, you've done it wrong one hundred times. What you've essentially done is developed incorrect muscle memory, which is hard to fix. It's no different in business, whether it’s in sales or marketing. It's more cost-effective and efficient to learn to do something correctly at the beginning versus putting in flaws and having to take them out.
In the SEALs, we would strive to learn to do things correctly the first time, and every time. The SEALs had a process for everything we did. We would plan smartly and prepare by training as close as possible to war, but things rarely go according to plan, so we would also prepare for contingencies and develop what we call backup plans. It didn't matter if it was training or a mission, we would always do a Debrief after an event to learn what worked but also learn from our mistakes.
So as we tee up this conversation about “Debriefs and After Action Reports,” in addition to training and mission planning, you stated one of the most important components in future success is the After Action Report. What is an After Action Report or a Debrief and why is it so valuable?
It may be helpful to first differentiate between an After Action Report and a Debrief. In the SEAL teams, a Debrief is what occurs directly after a training event or a mission, think of it as the specifics. An After Action Report is a summary of the Debrief from that event, it's recorded and organized information that should help you to implement what you gain from the Debrief.
Think of it this way: The Debrief should gather the important takeaways or seeds of an action or event and the After Action Report should be a tool to plant those seeds to learn and grow. Does that make sense?
Yeah, absolutely. That helps a lot. So there is a key differentiation between the two. If I'm hearing you correctly, the Debrief is really diving into the specifics of what happened and then the After Action Report is a combination of all those specifics, with notes and details about what to fix or change in the future, would that be accurate?
With that being said, what are some of the key components of the Debrief and the After Action Report?
With the Debrief, we would collect important takeaways immediately following the event. Whether it was training or a real mission, in high-functioning teams like ours, we expect each member to provide feedback. We would go around the table or the room seeking input and discussion. It didn't matter if it was on the shooting range or in the office, each person would give quick details on exactly what they did and their overall perspective, then you would move on to the next person. Typically we wouldn't spend more than a minute on each person. Someone would definitely be assigned to record all this.
Are there any guidelines or rules as far as when you hold an After Action Report or the Debrief, is there anything that you found works best?
Hold the Debrief right after an event or campaign. If we had a day on the shooting range or skydiving or clearing structures, if we finished a run or whatever that particular event was, we would immediately gather round and hold a Debrief. We would go from person-to-person. What did you do on this? What did you see on this? If you had input and it was valuable, you would provide that. Typically it was if you did something wrong or you could have done something a little bit better. That's really when you would bring up those points. And if you really didn't have any input, you could just move on to the next guy. Does that make sense?
So the answer is, do it immediately after and have someone record the notes so that you can move that into more of a detailed After Action Report later.
Okay. I am visualizing this. The sales and marketing team just had an event, like a trade show, sales pitch or a marketing campaign. We get the key team members together for a Debrief. The main goal is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of what happened and to identify where we could do better in the future. Within these Debriefs, I can see how people could feel like they're getting called out and it could be embarrassing, especially if they made a mistake. How did you handle this in the SEAL teams? The SEAL teams are known for being tough, strong guys with thick skin, but here in the corporate world, are there things that we can do to minimize these negative aspects and still have a positive outcome with the Debrief?
Yeah, we definitely had a thick skin and we could essentially point fingers if we needed to, in a constructive way. It depends on the organization and the culture. Is there trust? And the more trust you have within that organization, the more you can point out where others made mistakes. However, great leaders will highlight their own failures first, before they call out a teammate. Even if it means finding something wrong with what you did. We had a saying “Make sure your business is tight before you call out others.” And if your business is tight, if you're doing things right, your team, your team's gonna know it. And if not, they're going to notice.
Having that trust, as you mentioned Ron, is a key component to this.
So, now that you've had this After Action Debrief and you've documented this in the After Action Report, what are some of the key takeaways from this process? What are some of the key things that make this successful?
Any After Action Report that can help you learn, correct your failures and increase success is a successful one. But again, it starts with a Debrief and it moves to an After Action Report. So specifics first. Every organization should have a system for delegating responsibilities. In the SEAL teams, we all have specialty duties or departments. We had weapons and ordinance, communications, medics and breachers, and each department head was responsible for recording the Debriefing and moving it to an “intelligent After Action Report.” For example, I was a breacher in the SEAL teams. That was one of my specialty duties. And if we were working throughout the day, clearing structures, my job was to help us to gain entry into that structure through doors using various tools that we had. And if I were in charge of my other six breachers, I would make sure that we were doing a separate Debrief with our specialty duties. And then I would record that information at the end of the day. If necessary, I would type it up and move it up the chain of command to my boss in a formal After Action Report. All of the different departments collectively did this, that's when an intelligent After Action Report comes together.
And again, whether that's a day of training or a real mission, that's how we handled both the Debrief and the After Action Report.
Excellent. That does help a lot.
So you must make sure that you have delegated the key components, including scheduling, documentation and then following through and enhancing standard operating procedures?
Exactly. And you know, I think you should keep it simple. A lot of times, even in the SEAL teams, people overcomplicate things. Don't look at the Debrief or an After Action Report as something that you're just doing to impress your boss or each other. It should be real information that you can implement later if necessary. Does that make sense?
Yeah, absolutely. This could get complicated if you let it.
Are there any guidelines on when you hold an After Action Report or a Debrief versus skipping it? Like, are some actions or missions too small or inconsequential?
Always plan to do a quick Debrief after an event if possible. It can take just one minute. Open up that opportunity for your team. If everything went well, then just move on. Don't waste time with it. If you have that mindset or that's your standard operating procedure, whether in the SEAL teams or business, you'll always do it. And if you don't make that your standard operating procedure, then before you know it, it's lost.
We already touched on this a little bit, but when did you typically hold the After Action Debrief and Report? Is there a rule for how long after an event to where the Debrief can still be valuable?
It depends on the organization, but the Debrief should be done immediately following an event. So, say you go to a trade show or some type of sales meeting or you're working on a project with the team. Go ahead, and when that's over, pull everyone in the room, knock out the Debrief, and then from there an After Action Report should be done within 24 hours. For us, for a mission, we would get back, make sure all of our gear was good and people were safe, and then we would move those Debrief items to an After Action Report, typically within 24 to 48 hours if we could. Otherwise, if too much time goes by that information gets lost.
You can probably relate to this, like following up on a lead or a request for information. If you don't follow up quickly, before you know it, that opportunity is lost. Would you agree?
Yes. There is a rule in sales. If somebody calls you and you don't respond within 24 hours, the chances of securing that sale are significantly lower. And I'd say, it's probably within twenty minutes to an hour.
You mentioned delegating earlier. You mentioned having specific roles, someone to schedule the Debrief, somebody to take notes, somebody to actually file the After Action Report. Can you expand a little bit more? Who's accountable for scheduling these? How does that work?
I think it's organization-dependent. It's ultimately up to the leader, whether that's your CEO or your president or your team chief to assign and delegate those Debrief tasks. It’s up to the leader to make sure it happens. The After Action Report, that final report is all on the leader.
Have you seen this with other businesses where that leader doesn't hold his team accountable? I could see that these After Action Reports and the summaries following could start to wane, people would stop doing it routinely, and then the performance would start to wane as well. The leader of the team really has to be the one that holds his team accountable for making sure these things happen.
Absolutely. A good team, a high-functioning team, they're going to show that initiative. If it's not getting done, then somebody needs to take charge and make sure that's happening and then hold people accountable for it.
I want to jump to another question. If you had one piece of advice on how to improve the performance of a sales and marketing team or anything for that matter, what would it be?
Sales and marketing teams should assess how every key initiative is performed. Define success criteria and how you performed against them. Then list any issues that may have prevented success. Discuss the solutions. What would you have done differently? What could you have done to exceed expectations? What should have been involved? Did you have the right resources and did you plan far enough in advance? From there, you need to execute a plan to develop and implement solutions and also delegate tasks and assign timelines. This is important because Debriefing and After Action Reports can be a waste of time if you don't implement the solution.
In the SEAL teams, especially with us at DEVGRU, we had a culture of innovation. Guys were always developing new gear, weapons, tactics, techniques, procedures, basically solving problems and making things better. Most of the time, it started because of the Debrief. We would implement those solutions and this made us more effective when we went to war.
To wrap it up: One piece of advice on how I think anyone can improve the performance of sales and marketing is to know your job, do your job. Do it better than your competition. Do better than anyone else on your team. Lead from the front and be the example. This creates a culture of uncommon leaders and a culture of accountability. It’s this kind of culture where the Debrief and After Action Report can be a highly effective tool for implementing the lessons you learned from all the hard work. Does that make sense?
You know Ron, another question. Can you share a story or a mission? Or even a training exercise? Where you use these tools? I mean, obviously, you use them all the time. But can you share something with the audience on a time where you used it and how you either refined or changed some of your standard operating procedures or just improved the effectiveness of your team from this?
There are countless examples. Our team was filled with leaders and innovators. We were always looking for ways to improve our weapons system and our training procedures. Pre 9/11 we were using a shotgun to open up doors and structures to gain entry and it was essentially taking our rifle offline. Aas breachers, we're using a firearm system that really wasn't conducive to fighting in combat. So we got a group of people together and figured out a way to implement a better system, a system where we could actually use the shotgun to open up the door, but then retain it so we could get a rifle back up online. That was extremely helpful when we went downrange or went overseas after 9/11 because now we had a group of breaches within our team now having rifles, which was again, a more effective fighting platform than using a shotgun. That's just one small example.
Again, we were innovators. Someone would come up with a good idea and we would get together in small groups and figure out a way to implement that idea. I think that's what made us so successful in war and in combat.
It sounds like a lot of your success was the innovation that led to practice and then to Debriefs and then to implementation?
Most entrepreneurs want to be great leaders with high-performing teams, but what does that really look like and how does it work? In my presentation on Uncommon Leadership, I share stories and lessons learned during my time in DEVGRU to provide perspective on what leadership looks like inside an elite team.
You do have some amazing stories.
Thank you, Ron, I really appreciate you taking the time to be with us today. In summary, I've written down nine key takeaways from this discussion. I'll go through these real quick and please feel free to join in and/or correct me if I'm wrong.
- Conduct a Debrief after every event or campaign.
- Summarize your specific findings in an After Action Report.
- Hold the Debrief and Report immediately after your event or campaign or at most within 24 hours.
- Ensure you have strong team trust when you're doing your After Action Debrief.
- Call out your own failures first.
- Make sure you have your act together and aligned before you call out others.
- Delegate responsibilities.
- Scheduling the Debrief
- Documenting the findings
- Following through with the After Action Report
- Making sure somebody is accountable for actually enhancing your standard operating procedures or fixing areas where you can improve success.
- Don't overcomplicate things; keep it simple.
- Don't waste time. Hold a quick Debrief after every event. If no action is required, move on.
- The leader of the team has to hold his or her team accountable. It’s really important to make sure these Debriefs and Reports happen systematically, otherwise, they'll wane and the results will wane as well.
- I thought this was probably the biggest one: Define the success criteria and measure against them and your expectations. You really must implement and refine your standard operating procedures or this will all just be a waste of time.
Yeah, that's great. I think you nailed it all.
Excellent. Thanks again, Ron, for joining us.
That'll wrap up our podcast. If you would like to get in touch with Ron and learn about Validus, Ron’s personal protection and firearms training company, or schedule Ron for a workshop or speaking engagement, please contact Ron through his website.
Thanks for joining us today.