Levelling up performance variation in a team

Whilst the value of AAR in safety critical environments like healthcare and the military can be easy to understand, our clients also want confirmation of its value in the commercial context. This case study describes the significant commercial benefits which resulted when AAR was used by one business unit in a successful pharmaceutical company.


While iTS Leadership was working with a Business Unit Leader of a FTSE100 pharmaceutical company on a number of team and leadership development initiatives, the client identified a particular issue:

“Why are some people in my team great at helping clinicians identify patients and get them the help they so desperately need, while others seem to find it so much harder?”

It was a question that he “carried about like a heavy weight. We had detailed localised plans, regular reviews of performance, analytics coming out of our ears, milestone progressions, adoption ladders and softer measures, so we thought we had a good handle on what was needed to support the effectiveness of the team. But I knew we were still missing something.”

The challenge

The client needed to identify, understand and remedy the variation in performance he was seeing in his team. After some discussion, he and his team collectively identified two key factors:

  1. The area is especially difficult due to… [insert e.g. access, treatment pathways, personalities, protocols]
  2. In the rare disease field, it’s all about relationships

The client admitted that getting to grips with these areas would be challenging. “Are access difficulties a real issue or an easy excuse for poor performance?  Yes, we’re all human, but what do we actually mean by ‘it’s all about relationships?’ It’s not specific and not easily reproducible, so how do we improve it?”.

The solution

iTS Leadership suggested integrating After Action Review (AAR) into the client’s sales conference session and, if successful, embed AAR into day-to-day business operations.

Prior to the sales conference, a group of staff from the Business Unit participated in an iTS AAR Conductor Development Day, where they learned about the value of creating a culture of continuous improvement, increasing psychological safety and ensuring blame-free discussions within their team.

The experts at iTS AAR then worked with the client on how to present the initiative at the conference and create the best possible conditions for a successful AAR.

At conference, the following five steps were enacted:

  1. The client briefed his team on why he was introducing AAR, how the sessions would work and most importantly, how they would fit into normal performance discussions (rather than being a stand-alone training exercise that would be ‘done’ to them)
  2. They agreed as a team the specific question to be asked in the AAR
  3. Neutral AAR Conductors, who were not part of the team, were brought in to facilitate the session
  4. The ground rules were clearly laid out
  5. The client and the leadership team left the room (they didn’t want their presence to change the dynamic in the group or hold the team back from being honest in their discussions. It also visibly demonstrated one of the ground rules of AAR: leave hierarchy at the door)


The client was delighted with his colleagues’ reaction to the process: “The team were very comfortable to discuss their own comments, which I took as a sign that we’d achieved the blame-free environment required for a good quality AAR, and continued to build our mutual trust.

“The outputs from the AAR were incredibly valuable in helping us see what really mattered to our customers and the improvements we needed to make in our follow up. Unlike previous discussions, it was the subtleties and nuances identified in the AAR that gave us clear sight of the last 5-10% of difference we wanted to achieve.”

Some months later the client’s leadership team reviewed the value that the introduction of AAR had had on the business:

  • Impact
    1. The team went from middle-ranking to top three in the global organisation within nine months
    2. “Given the area we operated in, this was truly remarkable”
  • Improved team performance
    1. The highest performers were continuing to improve
    2. The lowest performers had increased their effectiveness significantly
  • Improved team communications (an area which had been a long-term focus but that the AAR had specifically boosted)
    1. No blame
    2. Leaving hierarchy and self-interest at the door
    3. Improved team trust
  • Clarity
    1. AAR provided a true picture of the key issues rather than several first-person views
    2. Avoidance of the bias that comes with best practice sharing
    3. Enabled the client to listen far better to customers and shape strategy accordingly
    4. It enabled the client to answer his original question about performance variation

The Verdict

“AARs aren’t something that should be ‘done to’ a team when there is a specific event. Instead I’d recommended looking to embed AAR as part of a wider approach to performance development. Give the team at iTS Leadership a call, they might be able to help you and your business as they did mine.”

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