Box of Crayons Blog


The Art of The Debrief

The hard work is behind you. The project is over, and everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. But, how did it measure up?

Your don’t want the “it was great” comments that gloss over the details (in which the devil resides).

Rather, have a cold hard look at:
• What really worked – and why?
• And what really didn’t work – and why not?
• What role did you have? In the success? In the failures?

Where does learning come from?

Ironically, the learning from an event comes primarily from the debrief rather than from the event itself. Yet, too often, after a project or an event, it’s rare that anyone, either individually or as a team, sits down to reflect on what has unfolded.

There’s an art to conducting a retrospective that’s powerful and practical.

Most of us don’t bother with a post-event examination. But even when we do, they can be painful affairs: either it’s a combination of passive-aggressive politeness with no one willing to mention the “dead elephant” in the room, or it’s an exercise in finger-pointing.

To improve the debrief, time-crunched managers should consider an After Action Review (AAR) that is focused primarily on learning and building community. It is founded on two related principles:

1. This is not to judge success or failure (and hence apportion blame) but rather the focus is on what can be learned for moving forward.
2. There’s a belief that regardless of what’s discovered, the participants understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Five powerful questions

With that in place, there are five simple and profound questions to ask.

1. What did you intend?
This can be a simple repetition of your goals. What were you trying to achieve?

2. What happened?
This is useful for just getting a sense of what REALLY happened. You can rest assured that your perspective of events is only one of the versions. The objective here is to collect both “the facts” (such as costs, number of people involved, figures, etc) and differing opinions on what worked and didn’t work, what circumstances influenced what happened, and other factors.

When commenting on others’ roles, capture specific behavioural events (what they did, what they said) rather than your conclusion about what they did (X did a poor job because…).

3. What can we learn about it?
There will be different levels of learning here, from the very specific (“the display booth was too dark, and needed more lighting”) to the more abstract (“I didn’t always see how this project was aligned with department strategy”).

Don’t forget to ask, “What did we do well that we need to discuss or else it will be forgotten?” It’s very easy to jump to “the mistakes”. It’s most powerful to start with what’s been working. Capture also “what still puzzles us?” You won’t be able to figure everything out. Be explicit about what it is that still is a mystery.

4. What should we do differently next time?
This is powerful because it plants seeds for the “next time” conversation. Without these seeds, we default back to a collective memory of “this is how we do things around here” which most often does not capitalize on the collected wisdom.

5. What should we do now?
There may well be actions to take right now: things to do, people with whom to connect.
As with all actions, set up accountability: what will be done, by whom and by when.


Now, I’d like your input=> Is there anything I’ve missed? What are your best practices for the art of the debrief?

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