After the Exercise: Using Change Management Theory to Improve After-Action Event Outcomes

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Cynthia Holmes


Preparedness agencies fail to act on gaps identified by exercises; instead, they repeat exercises and never move to resolve issues. After-action reports (AARs) document exercise findings, but are not shared with forward-facing staff who do the work. Agencies spend federal money exercising capabilities, but fail to implement changes recommended by exercise evaluations.
Exercise professionals create after-action documents and improvement plans (IPs), and then assume their findings are communicated throughout the agency. Exercise participants do not learn about exercise-generated policy changes or IPs.
Identifying gaps between the assumptions of exercise creators and the experiences of exercise participants is not new. Determining more precisely where this gap exists in terms of agency authority level is more helpful. However, identifying steps from corporate change management theories applicable to emergency management increases the likelihood exercise lessons will truly be learned, not just repeated.
Preparedness agencies receive millions of dollars from the federal government. Exercise participation is meant to show national preparedness and the strength of core capabilities. However, if agencies do not follow through and improve the exercise’s findings, the return on investment is low. This thesis provides clear steps to improve after-action outcomes and complete IP items.
Three research methods were employed to collect information for this thesis. A literature review of change management theory explored the ways for-profit corporations manage change in their fast-moving, high-consequence world. While the world of homeland security, emergency management, and government agencies is slower paced, they too reside in a high-consequence world. Investigating corporate change management theory provided models for preparedness agencies to follow. Examples provided by several change management theorists offer guidance for ensuring changes and improvements begun are completed.
To understand the extent of the problem, a survey asked preparedness exercise participants about their after-action experiences. Survey respondents were asked if they saw after-action documents or IPs. Respondents were also asked if they saw policy or training changes addressing gaps identified by exercises, or if they had personally changed any behaviors. Survey respondents were divided by agency authority level to examine if front-line employees and first-level managers experiences differed from upper-level management.
Exercise professionals were interviewed to understand the after-action events from the exercise creator’s perspective. Interview subjects were asked about successful after-action events they experienced, agency processes, and communication of exercise findings. Common factors leading to successful after-action events were identified. The exercise professionals also spoke about innovative solutions to the remaining barriers that hinder IPs.
This thesis found similarities between corporate change management theories and FEMA’s Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) guidance for exercise management and improvement planning. HSEEP’s strength lies in its instructions for exercise planning and conduct, but its weakness is evident in exercise after-action events. Change management theory provides actionable steps to help HSEEP users move beyond just identification of issues and into solutions.
Exercise participants experience after-action events differently based in part on their authority level. Employees at an agency’s forefront are less likely to see policy changes or be given an opportunity to read after-action documents and IPs. Front-line and first-level managers are the workers of an agency. Policy changes and IPs must be visible to these workers if an agency hopes to strengthen its capabilities.
Exercise professionals distribute after-action documentation to select subject matter experts or individual agency contacts rather than disseminating the findings widely. Exercise professionals had no data documenting whether their findings were conveyed within agencies or to other relevant stakeholders.
A clear plan to manage information collection and organizational changes improves after-action event outcomes by increasing capabilities within a preparedness organization. These recommendations offer strategies to increase successful after-action events.
1. Organizational Changes Must Be Clearly Identified to All Authority Levels
Preparedness agencies update policies and training programs to address gaps identified by exercises and real-world events. However, policy changes and training roll-outs must be communicated to all authority levels within an organization frequently and include why changes are occurring. Consistently communicating the importance of the organizational change signals to employees the value and seriousness with which the organization views the need for improvement.
2. Organizations Must Include Employees of All Authority Levels in After-Action Events
Preparedness agencies do not intend to silo employees and limit communication. However, if only management is privy to after-action discussions and improvement planning, front-line employees are left out. Including employees at all authority levels helps drive change. Employees with enthusiasm champion IP items they feel passionately about, regardless of their authority level.
3. Leverage Leadership, Whole Community Support, and Trust for Successful After-Action Events
Successful change management strategies encourage leaders to visibly drive change. Incorporating leadership influence helps increase successful completion of IP items. Interagency cooperation and community partnerships help by distributing work and cost among many stakeholders when IP items are big or costly. Building trust plays an important role in both receiving honest feedback from exercise participants and working with leadership to approve honest documents for dissemination.
4. Exercise Professionals Must Disseminate After-Action Documents to Wider Audiences
Exercise professionals need to reach broader audiences with after action-action documents. Expanding distribution beyond single points of contact within agencies allows more exercise participants an opportunity to learn exercise findings.
Barriers to successful after-action processes exist. Change management strategies can help overcome them and improve performance outcomes and preparedness capabilities.

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