The Debrief Meeting: Slow down to Speed Up
It is known by many names. In the U.S. Army, it is called the after-action review or AAR. In business, it often goes by the unfortunate name of post-mortem. In psychology and military aviation, however, it is known as a debrief meeting. A Debrief Meeting is a soft technology that began to develop out of necessity following World War II. It’s not just an American military practice, it is practiced in military organizations all over the world. It is a principal contributing factor to the incredible safety record of modern aviation. For instance, there were 36.4 million commercial flights worldwide in 2013. Pilots flew over 3 billion passengers that year. In spite of the complexity and inherent dangers of air travel, only 210 people died in aircraft accidents. For comparison, there were 33,804 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. alone that same year.
Follow Up Strategic Business Planning With a Debrief
We know that the debrief meeting works; that it is a powerful continuous performance improvement tool that follows strategic business planning. Shockingly, there was very little research to prove it when James D. Murphy and I wrote The Debrief Imperative (Premiere, 2011) five years ago. We had been teaching the debrief meeting to businesses and other organizations all over the world since 1996. We saw its effectiveness first hand. But, we couldn’t attribute the success of aviation safety to debriefing alone since there were many other contributing factors within an aviation industry practice known as Crew Resource Management or CRM. There was a mountain of experience and peripheral evidence, but no specific study to quantify the benefit of debriefing. Until 2013, the only serious study on debriefing had been conducted within the U.S. and Israeli militaries, hardly the universal application we looked for to demonstrate the value of debriefing to businesses and other teams and organizations. But, now there is clear proof, and it is stunning.
Effective Debriefing Makes Teams More Efficient
Recently, Scott Tannenbaum and Christopher Cerasoli conducted a meta-analysis of 46 separate studies of debriefing to discover that it increased performance by an average of 25 percent! To be honest, we believed that was a little low. Our experience demonstrated higher returns. But, Tannenbaum and Cerasoli’s study suggested we might still be right. The reason is that, as the researchers admitted, there was a lack of consistent structure in debriefing practice and that “. . . some conceptual ambiguity surrounds the current definition of debrief.” Thus, when debriefing is team-focused and structured, the researchers saw an impressive thirty-eight percent increase in performance. That is more in line with what we have witnessed in our work over the past two decades.
So, if debriefing is so effective, why doesn’t everyone do it? It isn’t that debriefing is difficult to do, or that it takes too much time, or even that it is costly in resources. Tannenbaum and Cerasoli’s study cites that debriefing is both cheap and easy. The reason debriefing isn’t practiced more frequently in organizations is that leaders simply don’t know how to do it and those that try their hand at it don’t have the simple structure and basic training to capitalize on its full value.
We’ve known that debriefing requires the right structure or process for decades. That’s what made it so successful in military aviation and that’s what we’ve been teaching. Our process looks like this. We call it the S.T.E.A.L.T.H.℠ debrief which is an acronym to help facilitators remember the sequence of seven steps.
Set the Time – Determine when you are going to debrief up front before you begin a project or start your work.
Tone – The tone of a debrief meeting is openness and honesty. The leader or facilitator should admit their own errors up front to demonstrate that everyone is susceptible to error and that candid discussion is expected.
Execution – Review how the plan or project was executed. What were the results that the team should focus on to improve?
Analyze Execution – Determine the causes and root causes of successes and errors. Debrief meetings are not about blaming individuals, but about finding ways to improve the team and organization.
Lesson Learned – What can you, the team, or some other team do differently to avoid an error or repeat a success? Developing an actionable lesson learned means writing down some specific ways to improve or change activities in the future.
Transfer Lessons Learned – How will you inform others about what you have learned? How will you store it? Hold on to learning. Don’t let it go.
High Note – What’s past is past. Always end a debrief on a high note. Don’t keep beating yourselves up when things didn’t go so well. Find something positive to summarize at the end of a debrief meeting.
The best part about debriefing is that once you’ve learned how and begin to become comfortable with it, it doesn’t take much time. If you are performing debriefs frequently, they only take about 20 minutes. If there are more complex discussions, limit them to an hour. The key ingredient to successful debriefing is honesty. That’s not always easy. But start doing it and people will become more comfortable with candidness. That’s when you will see performance skyrocket.
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. Duke currently serves as a senior Human Resources Officer in the in the U.S. Navy Reserve and has held numerous command and command-staff positions throughout his career.