The Forces of global change can render professional skill sets obsolete almost overnight. Organizations that fail to continuously revise assumptions about their operating environment (i.e. market) risk obsolescence or irrelevance. It is vital to develop the capacity to learn from your environment. But how is this done? Information overload is the management crisis of the 21stcentury. We have so many measures, dashboards and performance indicators that acquiring information can become an end rather than a means. The answer is debriefing. In fact, debriefing isn’t just something that is helpful, in today’s environment it’s an imperative.
Debriefing has many benefits. They are numerous and fall into two categories. First, there are the discrete, tangible products that emerge directly from the debrief process. Then there are the leadership, cultural, and intangible benefits that arise from the consistent practice of debriefing.
The first of the immediate and tangible benefits of debriefing is that it formally concludes a task or project. One is reminded of the phrase ‘closing the loop’. We bring finality to a task and move on. But not before we learn from it. In a complex world where predictability is impossible and innovation and risk are necessary to survive and thrive, mistakes are not only acceptable, but welcome. A healthy level of mistakes tells us that we’re putting forth the extra and sometimes risky effort to succeed. It’s not a weakness to make mistakes; it’s weak to hide mistakes. Debriefing provides an appropriate means of putting the past behind us, learning and growing from it, and moving on. And, when debriefing is performed regularly, it keeps the organization focused on the present and the future rather than the past. It helps us to continually revise our assumptions about the market, economy, and world.
Second, proper debriefing fulfills a critical need for effective learning by connecting cause and effect rather than allowing time delays to inhibit or prevent meaningful learning. How long can you survive the repetition of the same mistake? What good does it do to have members of an organization contribute to a project or planning effort and then have no connection to the outcome, no part in the post mortem? How can individuals measure themselves? Groups? Debriefing sees to it that they are intimately connected and responsible for the outcomes. Humans have a deep psychological need to accomplish something, to see things through. Debriefing, particularly when it is used regularly and over short time frames, helps us fulfill this need.
Third, debriefing is a catalyst for change. At its heart, debriefing is a change agent. John Kotter, the renowned scholar on change management, suggests that successful change requires management to create opportunities for ‘short term wins,’ thereby repetitively reinforcing positive steps along the path to change. The creation of ‘wins’, however, presupposes an incremental process of planning in which tasks or projects are planned for and executed in relatively short periods of time. And that alone is all well and good but we’ll miss the opportunity to create these short term wins unless we debrief. Consider your business. You have a sales cycle, a promotion cycle, a production cycle and so on. One may be a daily cycle, one may be weekly, and one monthly but for each process there is an inherent cycle and for each cycle there’s an end-point and at each end-point there should be a debrief where we tally the ‘wins.’
Fourth, a rigorous debriefing process seeks root causes. It is not enough to see that we had a win or a loss, rather we need to look beneath the surface to make sure it wasn’t luck or some other force at work. So we ask ourselves why – why did something succeed or fail? Most of the time it’s obvious and we move on – but not always. Simply looking at the obvious causes may not uncover the real forces, the ‘why’s.’ Digging a little deeper is an essential part of a debrief. Harmful root causes can fester and grow to infect the organization if left unaddressed. Debriefing provides an opportunity to sort through the ambiguities in our complex systems and improve at the core organizational level.
Fifth, once root causes are identified, an actionable and specific lesson learned is developed. A lesson learned may require a change or amendment to existing processes, procedures, standards, rules or regulations. It may require further development of a plan or program to address the root cause. It may require a change in training or standards. Or, it may simply be a list of steps for others to utilize in future tasks and plans. Since a lesson learned is written in an explicit manner, it can be stored and made available for others in the future.
Finally, debriefing, via the development of lessons learned, provides a rapid and simple approach to process improvement. Since debriefs occur frequently, improvement is near continuous, and results are rapidly fed into the system. We want to accelerate the learning experience, get our people up that learning curve faster. Debriefing is about accomplishing those ends quickly.
Perhaps not surprisingly, debriefing has an impact on corporate culture, too. Edgar Schein, perhaps the most respected scholar on organizational culture, states that “… culture is the result of a complex group learning process.” Debriefing is just that, a group learning process. It is the forum in which we learn from ourselves and each other. To take charge of that process, to ritualize and develop it, is to take control of your organizational culture. The kind of culture that debriefing develops is one of learning, openness and honesty. Add to it the short term wins and the passing of lessons learned across traditional barriers, and you see profound alignment toward organizational excellence.
Debriefing also supports the development of better leaders and more cohesive teams. Debriefing requires a team leader to lead the debrief. The success of the debrief is therefore incumbent upon that leader, which in turn helps build leaders through their own trial and error. Debriefing helps build leaders by helping them learn the skills to establish greater trust between themselves and their team. Leadership must be observed and practiced in order to be mastered. Debriefing provides an opportunity for leadership to be developed, practiced, displayed, and observed. Debriefing should have a ‘nameless, rankless’ tone. This comes about because of the first rule, that the planner is the lead debriefer; on a given mission, the junior executive may be the team leader while a senior VP may have only a supporting role. In the debrief, everyone’s execution is dissected, but the meeting is led by one just person, which is invaluable leadership training. When we allow junior members to take the lead in planning and debriefing, we provide extraordinary opportunities for developing leaders.
The debrief builds greater trust between team members because of the openness and honesty demanded of all involved. When a team thoroughly discusses each other’s contribution to the execution of a task, they come to know each other and understand each other’s unique challenges and obstacles. Furthermore, they uncover the complexities that challenge them and learn how better to assist each other in managing those challenges.
In addition to improving leaders and teams, debriefing provides insights for organization-wide improvements. Although debriefing begins at the very tactical or day-to-day operational level, the practice of debriefing should cascade upward in the organization. For an organization as a whole, the analysis of recurring root causes is a powerful tool of continuous improvement. Such analysis provides a
capacity to identify or self-diagnose a host of organizational weaknesses.
As a learning tool, debriefing is essential. We live in a world of rapid change that we have no real capacity to predict. What we learn today may save us tomorrow. Knowledge is perishable; it requires
institutionalized debriefing to keep it fresh and up to date. Those organizations that hold debriefing as a ‘sacred’ part of their culture, thrive.
About the Authors
James D. ‘Murph’ Murphy, the Founder & CEO of Afterburner, Inc., has a unique and powerful mix of leadership skills in both the military and business worlds. Murph joined the U.S. Air Force where he learned to fly the F-15. He logged over 1,200 hours as an instructor pilot in the F-15 and accumulated over 3,200 hours of flight time in other high-performance aircraft. As the 116th Fighter Wing’s Chief of Training for the Georgia Air National Guard, Murph’s job was to keep 42 combat-trained fighter pilots ready to deploy worldwide within 72 hours. As a flight leader, he flew missions to Central America, Asia, Central Europe and the Middle East. To read James Murphy’s complete biography, click here.
Will Duke is Afterburner’s Director of Learning and Development. His duties include coordination of the development of intellectual property, training programs, and educational materials. He also serves as a consultant to process and continuous improvement management programs. With Co-Author James ‘Murph’ Murphy, he wrote the 2010 release The Flawless Execution Field Manual. To read William Duke’s complete biography, click here.