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Army After-Action-Reviews in a Fishbowl (Lisa Kimball)

Lisa Kimball, PhD, formerly President of the Plexus Institute, a non-profit organization focused on applying ideas from complexity science to solve social and organizational problems. She sits on the board of the Organizational Development Network. In the mid-1980’s, with Frank Burns, she started introducing LS methods to clients from government, agencies, corporations, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions.

 Transferring On-The-Ground Know How

In 2010 she started introducing Liberating Structures in an Army leadership program for officers called Starfish Adaptive Leadership [Brafman]. The program’s focus is on action and learning in complex environments. LS were included to help officers exploit opportunity and continuously learn in situations where they are in charge but not in control.

After action reviews are conducted with troops returning from a theater of war. In this case, field officers returning from Afghanistan were being interviewed to transfer knowledge to the people that would replace them. The field officers had specialized experience in developing trusting relationships with women in Afghan villages. Trusting relationships generate better information to fight the war and may dampen the Taliban’s efforts to recruit successfully.

Typically, each officer is interviewed individually by multiple organizations over a 30-day period. The process is detailed, precise, and demanding. The interviewers collate, analyze and summarize the information. Then, it is incorporated in briefings provided to the troops entering the war theatre typically via PowerPoint lectures.

A participant executive from the Army Knowledge Management function who had participated in the Starfish program experimented with Users Experience Fishbowl. Several officers that had returned from the war were asked to talk to each other about their experience of developing trusting relationships with community members, including local women, in Afghan villages. The other participants—both officers going into the theatre and members of the knowledge management group responsible for harvesting field intelligence—sat around the outside listening.

Lisa reports the story she heard from the executive-facilitator,

Everyone was on sitting on the edge of their chairs because they felt they were getting important first-hand, unfiltered information. Every word was important. Moreover, participants got the information plus a sense of how the officers worked together and made sense of confusing signals. The experience AND the information came through.”

For the interviewers, it was a revelatory experience. They had a chance to see and feel what was conveyed between officers leaving and those entering. Some of the questions asked were different and richer than what they imagined. The officers in the fishbowl took the questions very seriously and took notes so that they could be sure to answer all the questions as candidly as possible – if not then, at a later time.

For the officers leaving the theatre, the fishbowl was entirely satisfying in comparison to the prior interview process. The interview process was often numbing. They gave repetitive answers to questions that had little local flavor. In contrast, the fishbowl conversation evoked many more memories and details. One story sparked another.

Importantly, they were able to make sense of the messy experience together in a way that communicated much more. They felt able to share their on-the-ground experience in a way that would truly help their colleagues be safe and effective. The young soldiers who had never deployed were all ears listening to their leaders have a candid discussion about their concerns.

The executive facilitating the experiment said, “In the space of a couple hours, there was huge amount of understanding and progress made. The interaction among the participants told more of the story.”

Lisa is looking forward to expanding the success with Army officers. The next move is working with sergeants closer to the frontline.