Hold Effective Debrief Meetings

Making mistakes at work, although sometimes painful, can be valuable –  as long as we learn from them. The same can be said for successes.  Learning from both is easy if an organization resolves to understand what went right and what went wrong from a work experience. Yet, many times we do not allow ourselves the time for reflection after a win, or after a rough ride with a project. Instead, we move onto the next challenge without probing what was learned. .

Time pressures, concerns about hurting people’s feelings or a lack of knowledge about how to conduct a debrief meeting, can leave important performance-enhancing steps overlooked.

Debriefing, when done properly, can yield invaluable information about how to proceed in the future and help an organization sustain gains and overcome challenges.

There are three important steps to effectively debriefing after a project or initiative:

1. Setting Up The Debrief

First, talk to your team about why a debrief is important. Maybe you want to improve for the next time or analyze a unique situation or project. Perhaps you hope to capitalize on your strengths or learn from mistakes. Others may want to continuously learn and improve. A debriefing serves the “yearn to learn”.

In setting up the debrief, provide enough time to explore the conversation. When people have a chance to listen to each other, they trigger new ideas and ways of proceeding. As such, it is important to ensure everyone is polled for their opinion.

Keep the discussion focused on the project, not on the personal (e.g., “It was too bad that Fred didn’t get his report in on time”, vs. “We need to figure out a way to ensure that all the pieces of the puzzle are delivered on time”.).

If possible, someone who wasn’t closely involved in the project should facilitate the meeting so that the team leader can play a team-member role. A common mistake in conducting a debrief meeting is to lose focus of its purpose, causing staff to feel the process is a waste of time.

This can be avoided if care is taken to ensure the debrief doesn’t become a session for complaining, or, by contrast, a self-congratulatory meeting. Have an end result in mind. Put “creating next steps” on the agenda along with categories for discussion such as “How did our decision-making function?”, “How did our team communicate?”. Or, divide the debrief conversation along a timeline or key functions or activities in the project. Be sure to think about what you want to know when setting the agenda. Think about the project and what aspects of it were important and cover these topics.

2. Cover The Essential Questions
Once the debrief is set-up, remember to take a brainstorming approach to the questions your team is answering about their efforts. This means refraining from explaining why certain actions were taken or why some events took place. Rather, listen to, and record the team’s observations without initial comment.

    hAsk What Went Well
It is important to ask what was successful, so that you can preserve the positive ways in which the task was executed. Be careful not to get bogged down here. A temptation is to turn the meeting into a conversation about how well the team did and how well particular players performed. It’s tempting to stay too long on this question, especially if the team is anticipating having to discuss uncomfortable topics. The facilitator must keep the focus on asking the questions in the areas of interest set out in the agenda.

Encourage the team to consider what they enjoyed about the process from both team, personal and project viewpoints. Consider congratulating, recognizing and thanking people during this point in the discussion. Ask about the ways the team was the most efficient and productive. Identify what tasks were essential to the success of the project and what positions played a key part.

Consider how energy for the project was sustained over its duration. And, when creating next steps, focus on retaining energy boosters and aspects of the project that were enjoyable. Think about what went well and what you hope to preserve. Identify what the key ingredients were to the success and how these ingredients came to be. For example, some may have found that mini-celebrations of milestones kept them going, while others may note that the communication and camaraderie made the project enjoyable.

 h Ask What Could Be Improved
This can be a sensitive area but it is nonetheless important to stay open and non-defensive. Use the brainstorming format and be careful not to avoid delicate topics. Speak up. Follow the agenda and remember that covering all the bases will help in the long run, especially when it comes to creating next steps. Don’t forget to keep focused on improvement and problem solving and not on personal flaws. Think about the feedback about improvements and itemize what you could do to make a difference next time around. For example, if people had a hard time knowing what to do, adding more detail to the instruction manual may be the best idea.

3. Next Steps
At the end of the meeting you should have a list of ideas for next steps. For these steps to come to fruition, it is important to build in accountability. Who is going to be in charge of particular steps, and when will work be finished? If the meeting gets bogged down by gripes or stays stuck at reviewing successes, few next steps will be generated. Keeping focused on how you are going to use successes and gaffes to boost performance is the key to an effective debrief meeting.

Using a debrief meeting to enhance performance is an important tool to learning and improvement. Giving staff the time to reflect on past triumphs and ways to improve, offers all involved the opportunity to have a say in how the organization does business. And taking ownership of how a project becomes a success story, builds a team, sustains energy and motivates everyone involved.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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