When you have completed a task, do you take the time to think about what you’ve done and what you can learn from it? Very few people do this, but it’s an excellent idea. This process, called debriefing, is useful even if your project was a great success or a great failure. The point is to see what you can learn from your experience, not to find mistakes or someone to blame.
Become a debriefing expert! Whenever you’ve finished something, or even if you only managed to get half-way through a project before you had to stop, have a debriefing session. You can do this after being in a meeting, completing a task, dealing with a client, running an event, giving a presentation or even after an important conversation. It doesn’t have to take more than fifteen minutes.
Have a longer debriefing session at least once a month and you’ll learn a lot. You’ll also be doing something that almost no one else does. If you mention your ‘debriefing system’ during a job interview, you will definitely make a good impression.
The process of debriefing is not only helpful for things you’ve done yourself. You should also debrief after tasks you work on with other people. Here is how you can make sure your debriefing is productive:
- Plan each debrief
The key to a good team debrief is to make sure everyone knows about it. When people know they’ll be meeting after the project to share what they’ve learned, this encourages an attitude of learning and discovery. It means that all the way through the project, they’ll be thinking about what they’ll say during the debrief. You could even provide people with a list of questions they can keep in mind while working on the project.
- Make sure everyone attends
When having a debriefing meeting, it is important that everyone who was involved with the project is there. Often, companies will have many people working on a single project and you must include everyone when collecting feedback. You also want to make sure that everyone gets a chance to say what they think – it wouldn’t be very fair or helpful if only the team leaders got a chance to speak. The more involved each participant feels, the more motivated they will be to work on the next project. Another thing to consider is that there may be people who didn’t perform as well as they could have during the project. While a debrief meeting is not about blaming anyone, it is even more important for those people to be there, to learn about where things went wrong and how they can be improved in the future.
- Consider the timing of the meeting
It is always a good idea to hold the debrief meeting as soon as possible, while the details of the project are fresh in everyone’s minds. People are likely to be busy and it is important to have the meeting before they become too involved in a new project. Having the meeting at this time also means you can take note of people’s moods. They will probably still feel the same way they did during the project and this means they are more likely to speak up in the meeting.
At the same time, you should give everyone in the team time to prepare for the meeting. They may need to collect data, write down their thoughts or take a quick break first.
- Remember, the debrief is about learning
Make it clear to your team that the debrief is about sharing lessons learned. It’s not about criticising or finding mistakes in anyone’s work. During a debrief, everyone is equal — titles and ranks don’t matter. The team leader or project manager should go first, talking about things they could have done better or what they’ve learned. Then everyone else can take their turn to speak. The results of the project, whether good or bad, should be seen as team results.
If people feel comfortable in the meeting to share their thoughts and ideas, the insights will be more valuable. You will not only hear from the manager or leader, but also from other members of the team, and this will give a more in-depth view. A good idea is to start by saying thank you to everyone for their hard work. This will make people feel their effort was noticed and appreciated.
- Be detailed
When talking about things that happened on the project, go into as much detail as possible. A debrief meeting is not helpful if you focus on only a few things. The point is to look at all of the details and see what you can learn from them. For example, you might think a step in the project wasn’t interesting, but by discussing it with the team you might realise it was actually very important. You will then know that this is something to focus on next time.
- Ask the right questions
Good questions are the key to a good debriefing. Ask everyone at the meeting to think through these questions before they arrive. This will give people time to prepare their thoughts and come up with ideas. You may not be able to get through all the questions in the meeting, but make sure you at least discuss all the project’s aims. For each of the aims, ask whether it was successful, why it was or wasn’t successful, what was learned, and how things can be done differently next time.
- Construct a report
To make sure all the discussions and lessons from the meeting are recorded, it is a good idea to have someone taking notes. A debrief report can then be made straight after the meeting. Many debrief reports look similar and you can look online for examples and templates. The first section will always include the basic details of the project and these can usually be filled in before the meeting to save time. The second part of the report will be your findings or results. Here, you can include how they were different or similar to what you expected. This is also where you say what went right and what went wrong. Record what the members of the team say and why they think things went a certain way. In the final section, you can record the main lessons you learned and how you plan to do things differently in the future. Write down the most realistic steps you can take. When you start the next project, you can refer back to the report and remind yourself how to do things.
- Use your results
A debrief meeting is only worthwhile if you use your results. Make sure everyone gets a copy of the report so they are clear about the main lessons learnt. The next time you start a project, read through the previous results to help with your plan. In particular, discuss the ways you went wrong last time and how you are going to do things differently this time.
As mentioned above, to get the most out of a debrief meeting, you need to cover all the important questions and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Even if you don’t have much time, these are the discussions you should always include:
- What Was Our Aim?
It is useful to start by repeating the original aims of the project. This is also an opportunity to see if the goals of the project were stated as clearly as they should have been. This can be done by going over the original plan, focusing mainly on the aims and objectives.
- How Close Did We Get?
This is the chance to assess the success of the task or project you were working on. Which aspects of the project worked well? Which ones did not go according to plan? It may be that you think it went a certain way but other people have different perspectives. It is helpful to discuss and gather all the opinions. By doing this, you will start reflecting on what caused this result.
- What Caused This Result?
Next, look at the steps that were followed throughout the project. Be specific: what exactly did you do that worked well or not so well? This is important as it is useful information to learn from. Make sure this exercise does not become an opportunity for people to blame each other. The idea is to look back over how you performed as a team and how this impacted the result.
- What Did We Learn?
It is no use having a debriefing session if you don’t learn something from it. Look at the things that went well as well as what didn’t go so well. You can learn which methods to continue using and those you should change next time. Aim to find three specific learning points. Some may be obvious (for example, more team members are required) but others might be less specific and require more exploration (for example, we would/wouldn’t take on this kind of project again).
- What Should We Do Differently Next Time?
This is one of the most important questions at a debriefing meeting. Until this point, you have been discussing your insights, but it is important these are remembered for next time. Be specific. If possible, come up with three practical suggestions. This will help you to do things differently next time instead of doing things the way they have always been done.
It is also important to decide the immediate plan of action. There may be tasks that need to be done after the debriefing and you should discuss whose responsibility they are. Without a clear plan, the lessons of the debrief can be quickly forgotten.
The hardest part of debriefing is just to get started, especially if you work for a company where this type of open communication is rare. If you want to introduce debriefing to your workplace, try using it on a few small projects with just a few people. As soon as you start, you’ll see how natural, intuitive and helpful it is. People will feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions and you may hear from people who don’t usually speak much. This is a great way for the team to come up with new ideas for future projects.