[Podcast] Stop Making the Same Mistakes. Why the Debrief Matters.

Written by:
Afterburner Team

Transform your failures into successes

Duration: 26:46

As a leader, it’s frustrating when your team repeats the same mistakes. If your team seems to always have the same challenges or if you have team members who are not performing as well as others, the solution is the debrief. The debrief is a powerful tool that can transform your business initiatives from repeated mistakes to repeated successes.

There are three things to keep in mind when debriefing:

  1. Make it nameless and rankless
  2. You must have a clear objective
  3. Turn the root causes into actionable lessons learned

In this episode of the Business Thorcast, Thor will discuss these three points and how powerful the debrief can be for your team.

[Below is a transcript of the episode.]

Fighter Pilot Debrief

Fighter pilots didn’t always debrief, during the 1950s in the Korean war, we had no such thing as a debrief. You went out and you flew and you were just left your own devices, your own skill set to make it through that mission. And what we found out was that we had an unacceptable loss rate where there were teams that had gone out there and the veterans that had gotten through 10, 12, 13 missions, were able to survive but the new wingmen, the folks who hadn’t been doing this very long, had a high mortality rates and they just weren’t learning from the rest of the team. And so we had to institute something to scale those best practices from the veteran team members and to teach the rest of the group how to succeed in this very challenging dynamic high stakes environment. And what they landed on was conducting a nameless rank-less debrief to be able to identify lessons learned for the entire team. Things that they could put into place, the very next mission and be deliberate about their improvement and how they were gonna operate as a team.

Now, as fighter pilots, we didn’t always debrief but that’s become something that’s core, part and parcel with our being these days. I’d never missed an opportunity to debrief. In more than 2,600 missions every single time we got done with that mission, we came back, we sat down and we conducted a nameless, rankless debrief, with the sole purpose of identifying what we did well, ’cause I wanna scale those best practices, what the inevitable mistakes were, because there’s always mistakes to talk about and how we’re gonna stop those out the next time and how do we turn those into lessons learned for that very next flight.

Corporate Debrief

These debriefs can help out your teams as well. There’s a great study from Harvard Business Review that showed that in the teams that they studied, teams coming from the NFL, from business groups, from the military, they analyzed the ones that conducted a debrief versus the ones that didn’t and it turns out that if you do even an unstructured debrief and I mean you do a poor debrief, a debrief that’s not so great, you’re gonna have a 22% chance higher likelihood of succeeding than a team that didn’t do a debrief. Now, think about that for a second, what could that mean for your team? If you’re leading a sales team and they are 22% more likely to succeed in that next sales call, or 22% more likely to hit their numbers for the quarter, what would that mean to your organization? And that’s just a bad debrief. Now, if we do a structured debrief, and I wanna teach you a little bit about how we did a structured debrief in my world if we do a structured debrief all of a sudden we see that number jump up to 38% more likely to succeed. 38% more likely to achieve the goal than the team that never conducted a debrief.

When we talk to teams in corporate America and we ask them if they debrief, overwhelmingly the response is, no or they’ll say yes and we come to find out it really isn’t a full deal debrief by the way we would define it. And when we talk to these corporate teams and we say, “Well, why don’t you conduct a debrief?” You can imagine the most common answer that they give us, is that there’s just not enough time. We finish one project, we gotta run to the next one immediately. I don’t have time to look backwards at the last quarter, we had barely made it across that goal line for the last quarter, we are already starting to have to look forward to that next project, that next quarter and so I don’t have time to look backwards as a team and figure out what happened in the past, we gotta move forward and look to the future. That’s the number one reason that we hear.

The number two reason is that it’s a difficult conversation, right? You need to sit down with your team and talk about what’s working, what’s not, it’s gonna be a candid conversation, it’s not always gonna be positive, you’re gonna have to point out some things that didn’t go well and people in corporate America are saying, “Yeah, I’d rather not have that conversation, I don’t really wanna rock the boat, I kind of value the artificial harmony thing that we got going on here and I prefer that to the respectful truth that we could create ’cause I’m not quite sure how to get past the artificial harmony and really have a candid conversation. A matter of fact I might ruin the relationship that we’ve built already if we start going down this debrief path.”

And then the last reason that we get all the time is people will say, “I bought into it, I understand based on these discussions that a debrief would be valuable but to be quite honest, I’m not sure how I would start that process. I’m really not sure how I would use a debrief, to find a lesson learned to help my team, be more effective in the future.”

And we bumped into the same problem as we started instituting debriefs in the fighter pilot community, we had to figure out a process, to get that information, and remember, there were some big egos that I was around in the fighter pilot community but I know people named “Iceman”, and “Maverick” and if you’ve seen the movies those are pretty realistic for the personalities, we don’t play a lot of beach volleyball, but everything else that you saw in the movie, and the bravado certainly exists within the fighter pilot culture. And yet, we were able to find a way to dismiss the ego, to leave the bravado at the door and conduct a conversation about how we’re going to get better as a team, and when we talked about things that we were doing wrong, instead of debating it or arguing with each other, we would be taking notes, because we had acknowledged a long time ago, that there’s no such thing, as a perfect mission.

Permission To Fail

It’s a really important concept to embrace, that you are allowed to fail. One of the ways that we instituted that was with our new trainees. I had the opportunity during those 2,600 missions I flew, to fly most of those as an instructor. And by the end of my stay in the Air Force towards the 17-year point, in most of the flights that I flew in, most of the formations that I was with, I was the most senior ranking person in the formation, and that sounds great, but what it really amounts to, is that I’m paired up with the weaker student, because I’m the one with the experience now, I’m the one that’s gonna be able to invest a little bit more time into that student and help them along and help them to get to the point where they’re going to succeed. Sometimes, I was paired up with a student that was doing so poorly, that he or she was about to be kicked out of the program if they didn’t have a good flight that day. And we would sit across the table from one another and you gotta imagine that this person is extremely anxious, extremely nervous because they’ve dreamed about this moment their entire lives and he or she has done everything that they’re supposed to do, right? Since they were four years old they had posters of F-15s and F-16s on their walls, they went to the Air Force Academy, they got a senator to sponsor them.

And did all the things they were supposed to do, they are great officers and yet here they sat in front of me and based on their performance today, the dream may come to an end. And as they’re sitting across the table from me and they’re obviously very nervous. I always started out my briefing with them, the exact same way, every single time. I’d say the following, “You will not have a perfect mission today. I’m not gonna have a perfect mission today, as a matter of fact in the 2,600 missions that I’ve flown I’ve never flown a perfect mission. I’m not going to assess you on your ability to fly perfectly, I’m going to assess you on your ability to adapt and react to the inevitable mistakes that take place during this mission. I am not expecting you to be perfect. But I am expecting you to be impeccable.” There is a difference. Impeccable means we operate within the constraints of safe flight, impeccable means we’re allowed to make mistakes, but we never repeat the same mistake twice, we gotta figure out a way to learn from those mistakes to iterate, to get better as a team, as an individual and honestly, that’s how we accelerate a performance to be some of the most elite teams on the planet, and certainly the most elite fighting force in the world.

How To Conduct a Debrief

Alright. How to conduct a debrief? How to sit in front of your team and have this candid, nameless, rank-less conversation about how we’re gonna improve as a team. And I know what you’re thinking, this is gonna be a difficult conversation ’cause all of a sudden we’re gonna need to be getting real with each other, right? But that’s the beauty of it, if you do it the right way, then you’re going to be able to change the things on the team that you’ve always wanted to affect, all the things that have been holding you back over time, you’re gonna be able to change those, but even better, you’re gonna identify things that you hadn’t even thought of, you’re gonna find new causes for the challenges that you face or even new best practices that you haven’t explored yet, you’re gonna be able to scale those for the future. Let’s talk about three key concepts to conducting your first debrief.

Nameless and Rankless

The first key concept is that the tone is set to be nameless and rank-less. What’s that mean? That means we’re not here to point fingers, we’re not here to get people fired, this is not punitive, this is about figuring out what’s right. It’s not who’s right, it’s what’s right. And rank doesn’t matter in this conversation. Remember I’m doing some of these conversations with four-star generals and as a lieutenant colonel having this conversation with a four-star general, I would tell them exactly the same thing that I’d tell the newest lieutenant. If that general made a mistake, I would tell him or her, what they did wrong.

Matter of fact, one time I was flying with a four-star general, we are in the same airplane and he made a mistake, and at this point in time there wasn’t enough time to talk about it, there wasn’t enough time to discuss it, all I said was, I have the aircraft and I took the controls out of his hand and I flew the aircraft, and I got us out of a bad situation. We flew back home, he was pretty quiet on the ride back and we got back into the debriefing room, and I was wondering what his response was gonna be to that situation. I ask you, “What do you think he said? This four-star general, this person whose car I have to salute when it drives by on base. This person who we have to call the entire room, the entire building to attention, everybody jumps out of their chair when he walks in. What do you think he said during this debrief after I wrestled the controls away from him in the flight?” He said, “Thank you.” Because he knew that we started that mission with an objective to stay safe and to operate the aircraft in an efficient manner.

And he knew that he wasn’t doing that. We had a conversation about what he did wrong, he said, “Yup. You’re right. That’s exactly what I did. I’ll take the lesson and learn it, and we move on.” And as soon as we walked out of that room, he was back to calling the room to attention and all the important proper courtesies that a general is afforded, but he knew that during that flight and during that debrief, it’s nameless and rankless.

You can create corporate teams that are the same way. We’ve done that with countless organizations, where it doesn’t matter if it’s the CEO that you’re talking to. Once you have a leader-led program, where you’re able to establish that tone that’s nameless and rankless, you can see some really powerful things happen. And the reason that general was willing to do that, is because he knows that’s the cost of creating that culture that allows us to admit our mistakes. That’s the cost of creating a learning organization.And so, he’s more than willing to put up with that cost in order to create the organization that won’t repeat the same mistake twice, and certainly the organization that’s gonna keep him alive in flight. That’s step number one, create a nameless, rankless environment. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Wow. I’m really excited about that ’cause I can’t wait to go back and tell my coworkers the things that they’re not doing well. And I can’t wait to finally hold my team accountable for the things that I think they could do better.” That’s great and you’ll get your chance to do that and that’s important, but here’s the thing, as a leader, you’ve gotta set that tone first, and the only way you can set that tone is by first admitting the errors that you’ve made. And if you’re saying, “Well, I’m not sure that I made any errors in the last mission.” Well, you’re not looking closely enough. I guarantee you your team has seen ways for you to improve. And so, assess your performance and think about the ways that you’re gonna get better and how you’re gonna change for that next mission. Start off your debrief by having that conversation.

That’s step number one, create a nameless, rankless environment. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Wow. I’m really excited about that ’cause I can’t wait to go back and tell my coworkers the things that they’re not doing well. And I can’t wait to finally hold my team accountable for the things that I think they could do better.” That’s great and you’ll get your chance to do that and that’s important, but here’s the thing, as a leader, you’ve gotta set that tone first, and the only way you can set that tone is by first admitting the errors that you’ve made. And if you’re saying, “Well, I’m not sure that I made any errors in the last mission.” Well, you’re not looking closely enough. I guarantee you your team has seen ways for you to improve. And so, assess your performance and think about the ways that you’re gonna get better and how you’re gonna change for that next mission. Start off your debrief by having that conversation.

I’d start off every one of my debriefs by talking about the things that I could have done better during my sortie. And you’re not apologizing to the team, you’re not asking for their forgiveness, you’re just merely stating, “Hey, mistakes are inevitable. I made some, you made some, here’s what I’m gonna do differently in the future to be more effective and to not repeat that same mistake.” And it’s really powerful when you do that because when the leader establishes that tone, later on in the conversation when you do have to go to one of your new team members and say, “Hey, this is what you did wrong.” Instead of that person getting all anxious and nervous that they’re about to be fired, they’ve got their pen out, and they’re taking notes and they’re capturing what they’re gonna do differently ’cause they’ve already heard that mistakes are acceptable as long as we never repeat them.

Have a Clear Objective

The second concept that’s critical for a debrief is that before you ever step out to fly that mission, before you ever go on that sales call, before you ever establish what the team’s going to accomplish, you need to have a clear objective. Here’s what I mean by that if you get back and you say, “You know team, I expected this of you. You didn’t do that and here’s what we’re gonna do in the future.” Someone’s gonna interrupt you and they’re gonna say, “Wait a second. We never agreed on that objective. That wasn’t made clear to me that we had to have that specific objective accomplished by this point in time.” And what we find out is that in the debrief, it’s identified that the plan was never fully fleshed out for the team. And to fully flesh out that plan, you need to have a clear, measurable, achievable objective and that objective also has to be aligned to an overarching strategy for the entire group.

Root Cause Analysis

And then finally, the third thing I want you to focus on when you do you debrief is, do root cause analysis. I want you to focus on two things for every debrief that you conduct. I want you to look for a positive to discuss, and it’s always great to talk about a positive first, the team’s excited about that, they start warming up their muscle memory for how to conduct a debrief for something that they wanna talk about. And then I want you to discuss a negative, and in both of those scenarios, I want you to do root cause analysis. What does root cause analysis mean? Well, it means we don’t stop at the first superficial reason for why something happened. I want you to continue asking “why?” to the team. Every time they give you a reason and say, “Why did that happen? Well, then why did that happen?” And ask it as many times as you need to until you’ve truly found that first link in the chain for that best practice or that first link in the chain for the error that was made.

Root cause analysis like Taiichi Ohno, he’s the father of the Toyota Production system and he started the concept of using the “5 Whys.” You would ask why over and over again until you truly get to that root cause, ’cause we don’t want to address the superficial cause, we wanna get to the root cause of the problem to make sure that we never find ourselves in the scenario like this again if it’s a mistake or if it’s a best practice that we’re able to identify ways to scale that for the entire team. Once you’ve got that cause, take that all-important last step, and has to go from a history lesson which is all we’ve done up unto this point, right? We got to a conversation about why this took place, “Oh, that’s why we lost that big sale. Oh, that’s why we got that new client.” Don’t stop there, you’ve got to take that next important step and say what the actionable lesson learned is going to be. Here’s what I mean by that. Give me specific instructions on how I can never repeat that mistake again. How I’m gonna do it better than next time. Give me specific instructions how I can leverage a success and help build that same momentum towards the next mission that we’re going to pursue.

Lessons Learned

We did a debrief last week on a 17 million dollar deal for a tech company. It was a great deal for the team, they were all excited about it. It was about a standard deviation higher than their typical sales deal. Most of their sales deals were between about 10 and 12 million. They got the white whale, they got their 17 million dollar deal. And we had a great debrief about why that took place. And we continued asking that “why” question over and over again. And it wasn’t just a team that sold it in the room, it was all the other teams they were apart of this region. And by the end of this conversation, each group had a page full of notes as they were listening to all the different causes and eventually the root cause to why this team succeeded where all the others had failed.

No one had ever gotten a 17 million dollar deal in the past and it was a great way to scale those best practices. And so they took these simple lessons learned. Sesame Street simple, make it as easy as possible for your team to understand them. Took these lessons learned and they are implementing them today. Right now they’re using these lessons learned, as we speak, to try to go after that next 17 million dollar deal. Or if it’s a new team member who’s got a much lower quota, change that 2 million dollar deal to a 3 million dollar deal. You can scale these concepts to your team in every single category. It scales up and down the organization.

The Power Of the Debrief

How powerful is the debrief? Well, let me give you the best example that I know of. I’m gonna teach you how to fly. Yep, you. I’m gonna teach you how to fly and not just how to fly. I’m gonna teach you how to take off in an airplane during the day. I’m gonna teach you how to land it at night. I’m gonna teach you how to fly aerobatics. I’m gonna teach you how to G-strain and pull six Gs, which means your body weighs six times more than it does right now and you gotta squeeze to keep the blood in your head as you do a loop, as you do a barrel roll.

I’m gonna teach you how to fly a Cloverleaf in a Cuban Eight. I’m gonna teach you how to fly low level, which means you’re flying 500 ft above the ground. I’m gonna take you into a canyon and we’re gonna be a couple hundred feet away from those canyon walls and you’re gonna do a great job of navigating this canyon and never coming into contact with any of the walls around you. And then finally, I’m gonna teach you how to fly formation. Formation means you’re flying 3 ft away from another aircraft. Not 2 ft, not 4 ft, 3 ft. So close that if I were sitting on the wing I could reach out and touch that other wing. And I’m gonna teach you how to do that not only in straight and level flight, I’m gonna teach you how to do that when I’m flying my lead aircraft at 90 degrees of bank and you’re staying there 3 ft away from my wing, and it looks like I’m falling on top of you in the sky and we’re both at 90 degrees of bank with 3 ft of separation from each other. I’m gonna teach you how to do all of those things and eventually, you’ll do them all by yourself without anybody else in the cockpit.

How long is it gonna take me to teach you all of that? What do you think? Two years? Three years? 10 years? Nope. Four months. Four months. How do I know it’s four months? I’ve taught thousands of pilots to do the exact same thing. And it’s not because I’m the world’s best instructor pilot. Although, I was pretty good at my craft. And it’s not because we had the world’s smartest students. It’s because we had a process, whereby at the end of every single mission we got together in a debriefing room, we discussed what worked and what didn’t, and we give you three lessons learned. Not a 100 things to fix. Three things after each mission to focus on for the next mission so that you could address the root causes of the challenges that you were facing. Three things to practice and over four months time those three things per mission would add up until you were apart of the 1% of the pilots in the world.

Malcolm Gladwell likes to say that, “Mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice.” I would like to say that if you can decrease that amount of time to four months of training, if you’ve got the right type of practice, if you’ve got deliberate practice, where you’re learning something new each day in a deliberate way and changing your behavior to erase the mistakes and to scale the best practices.

Debrief. When you do a debrief make it nameless and rankless. Make sure that you’re identifying a root cause for a successor of failure. And then turn that into an actionable lesson learned.