In today’s complex and high-stakes world, it’s critical to learn quickly – or else risk getting passed up by someone who does.

Ever wonder how Special Ops units like Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and Green Berets are so proficient at what they do? Well, there are lots of factors to explain this: How these warriors are selected, recruited, and trained is a big part of this high performance level. But, another key factor in what makes these guys total pros is how fast they learn…let’s face it, when life and death hangs in the balance, it’s a good idea to learn faster than the guy you’re up against. That’s what makes the “Hot Wash” such a powerful tool for learning.

The Hot Wash is a real-time, organizational learning tool. Sometimes referred to as a “de-brief” in the civilian world, or “After Action Review” in the military, this post-action approach lets you quickly and efficiently analyze events that just happened, learn from them, and then immediately integrate them into your next steps.

Spec Ops use the Hot Wash in amazingly effective ways…and you should too.

The process is very simple. Here is how it’s used in the military: After every training exercise, logistical movement, or combat mission, warriors gather around and review what just happened.  The whole unit is involved. No one is left out.

The organizational leader runs the Hot Wash. There should also be a note take…and a damn good one. Capturing key lessons is the overall goal here.

The leader runs the Hot Wash by asking asks some key questions:

Question #1 -“What just happened?” This first question paints a picture of the event from multiple perspectives. It is a narrative description of events from start to finish. This is given in the words of various participants from high ranking to low ranking, and sets the tone for the rest of the Hot Wash.

Question #2 -“What went right?” Playing to our strengths is always a good thing. This question sets things off by focusing on the strengths of the recent activity. It’s always easier to talk about what went right and this will get the participants more involved. Going to the things that went well is a good baseline to start with.

Question #3 -“What went wrong?” This is hard to do sometimes, but it’s very important. Participants take an active roll in identifying all the things that didn’t go well. This is where things can get heated, but it’s important to get it out there. The leader needs to be able to manage this discussion so that it is honest and transparent, yet remains professional and doesn’t devolve into a name calling or “bitch session.”

Question #4 -“What should we do differently next time?” This is the most important question to ask. This identifies what needs to be done in order to improve individual and collective performance as an organization. This might include re-training or additional resources. This is the information “gold” you want to walk away with. You have to go through these other questions first, however, to arrive at this answer. But, once you have this, you are well on your way to learning and integrating relevant change in near real-time.

There are a few more Spec Ops Best Practices that distinguish their Hot Wash process apart from the rest:

No one is exempt from the Hot Wash! The Hot Wash needs to be a priority. Great organizations don’t ever miss the Hot Wash. The tendency for most organizations is to make excuses for missing it. “I am tired.” or “I need to go turn my gear in.” These excuses don’t fly in the military and you can’t let similar excuses fly in our organizations. Other organizations send a few token participants and the leaders skip out.The Hot Wash involves everyone, including the leaders. If you are a leader, make sure you set that tone from the beginning and enforce it at all times.

Include everyone. The tendency is for leaders to dominate the conversation during Hot Washes. They stand in front of their gals and guys, spouting off on how well everything went. Wrong-o! A real leader calls on everyone. She involves even the lowest ranking dudes and dudettes who are in the shadows. This broad, bottom-up perspective is key. Get them all involved and you’ll also demonstrate the level of empathy needed to get your people to buy into the learning effort, and more importantly, the steps needed to improve. This takes leader discipline and thick skin, but call on everyone to make the Hot Wash dynamic and informative.

Put your lessons into practice right away. I see this all the time. Leaders run a great Hot Wash. Everyone contributes. Amazing lessons are learned…and then nothing is written down, everyone moves back to their respective work stations, and nothing is integrated for improved performance. Therefore, the whole thing was a big waste of time.

Leaders are key here. Retain the lessons from the Hot Wash, and more importantly, ensure they are integrated into next steps. If re-training is needed, do it…but get those lessons pushed out and implemented. This is how learning organizations win.

Regardless of your profession, a well-run Hot Wash can make all the difference in how your family, team, business, or volunteer groups learns, adapts, and wins in life and business. For my friends in the financial sector, try these Hot Washes immediately after your seminars, or after you’ve pitched potential investors.


Until next time, thanks for what you do, and keep leaving tracks.

Scott Mann


Photo: KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Soldiers with Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, conduct an “after action review” with the instructors from the 49th EOD Company, attached to the 4th BCT, 101st Abn. Div., after going through a counter improvised explosive device lane, June 20, 2013, Camp Parsa, Afghanistan. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Justin A. Moeller, 4th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs)




About The Author

Scott Mann has spent most of his entire adult life leaving tracks, and his mission in life is to help others do the same. His Dad, Rex Mann, refers to this as giving back to causes higher than yourself. He doesn’t know why he loves it so, but he does. He has served our great country for 23 years in the U.S. Army, most of that as a Green Beret doing missions all over the world. He fought three combat tours in Afghanistan, as well as in many other conflict zones such as Iraq and Colombia. His last few years in the Army, he was an architect and original implementer of the Special Operations Village Stability Operations (VSO)/Afghan Local Police (ALP) programs in Afghanistan. He also designed and implemented the popular SOCOM Academic Week training courses. Scott has commanded troops at several levels. At his last rank, lieutenant colonel, he made the tough decision to pass on his promotion to colonel and pursue other passions. It was one of the toughest but most rewarding choices he ever made. He is now the founder and CEO of the Stability Institute, where they broker knowledge and connecting stability professionals on complex stability issues around the globe. In concert with Institute President Howard Clark, he has built a vast network of stability practitioners who collaborate on unique solutions for government organizations, large corporations and even small businesses and individuals. As an entrepreneur, he built a multimillion-dollar real estate portfolio and property management company with his brother, who is his best friend and partner. They buy, turn around, and operate mobile home communities all over the state of North Carolina. He is blessed to put his entrepreneurial experience to use by mentoring transitioning Green Berets and other veterans in reaching their goals and dreams in the civilian sector. As an advocate, he is also the founder/CEO of Patriot Families, a nonprofit organization helping military families and wounded veterans at a grassroots level cope with the rigors of military deployments and family stress. He serves on the board of advisors for Stay in Step Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Center in Tampa, Florida, and Spirit of America, a nonprofit supporting our warriors and diplomats with stability missions abroad. He graduated from the University of Central Arkansas with a degree in Political Science. He has a Master’s Degree in Operational Art and Science from the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College. He lives in Riverview, Florida with his wife Monty and their three boys Cody, Cooper, and Brayden

Related Posts

One Response

  1. Rick Burrell

    We (Seals) are a bit more extensive with regard to the “hot-wash.” As an example for a C&K mission, we start by identifying the various phase-lines of the operation and dissect every iota of the op starting with the mission planning, then insert and infil, foot/vehicle movement to tgt (if any), primary and secondary entry points, perimeter security issues, time on target and activity on target, communications for the entire op, HUMINT & bag ‘n tag process, SIGINT issues, interoperability issues (fast movers, drones, rotary wing, etc), gear and equipment success and failures, forensics and site exploitation issues, exfil and extract, and of course team and personal operational gear inventory and status. We are talking about a process that could take hours depending on the complexity and duration of the op. Plus the hot-wash gives the assaulters time to re-hash movement, command and control and cohesiveness on target. We climbed out of our racks around 1pm or so and began mission planning for the night’s operation. The various supporting air platforms were airborne hours prior to the operation. We launched around midnight depending on time to target, executed as planned, then made every attempt to be back at the FOB prior to sunrise when the skinnies were starting to stir for 5am prayers. Many times the plan was to hit a single tgt and quite often intel found on site allowed us to hit numerous follow-on tgts on the same night, some being adjoining flats or businesses, some located on the other side of town. If the CG or JSOTF gave us the thumbs up and our support was available, we launched. The hot-wash was then conducted for each and every target. We made every attempt to have all parties from every phase of the operation present during the grand hot-wash. Once done, then the assaulters conducted our own hot-wash which was often brutal in nature, brutally honest – profanity laden – and occasionally a knucklehead was “treated-up” for pulling a bonehead move…as it should be. What happens in the assault team stays in the assault team.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.