If you do not stop from time to time to ask: “Did it work?”, “Were we right?”, “Was that the best way to do it?” then you are operating on hunches, intuition, luck, tradition and habit rather than facts, evidence and analysis—and you are probably not gaining much real work experience or learning on the job.
Many people work very hard for decades but never become experts in their field. Why? What makes the difference between working hard (being busy) and high performance learning? A key differentiator is “critical reflection”: stepping back to reflect on what you are doing. Aldous Huxley captures this idea brilliantly: “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.”
Critical reflection can make the difference between getting one year of experience repeated 30 times and 30 years of experience.
Debriefing is a core coaching practice: Use it to help you analyze why things turned out the way they did, learn from your experiences, and drive continuous improvement—for yourself and your team.
This blog will do three things: map how debriefing fits into the cycle of action, list the benefits of debriefing and introduce the classic debriefing script.
The PADA action cycle is a crucial project management, performance management and coaching practice. PADA applies the powerful logic and process of performance management to all major work goals and business initiatives. For every important or complex project or goal, use this holistic and sustainable action cycle to ensure execution is successful, efforts continue until the project is completed and your team is learning from experience.
Here is a map of where debriefing fits into the cycle of action:
Big projects a good plan. The purpose of the plan is to support successful execution: making it happen and making it stick. And as soon as execution begins, you need to stop from time to time to debrief (reflect on your progress) and adjust your actions to stay on track, as per your plan.
Debriefing sessions are usually scheduled around the major milestones and deadlines of the project. If there is too much time between deadlines, then debriefing can be scheduled on a regular basis, e.g., weekly or monthly, depending on the pace of activity and importance of the project.
Benefits of Debriefing:
I don’t know of any other management or leadership practice that can generate so many positive benefits at the same time.
Regular debriefing on key objectives can generate all of the following outcomes. Read this list to identify what you most want to get out of it. Knowing what you want will help you be more proactive in seeking precisely those outcomes. (If you don’t know what you want, you’re probably not going to get it.)
- Keep important issues on the table (focus, top of mind)
- Enhance accountability for action and results
- Monitor progress to plan so that you can fine tune efforts to stay on track
- Identify and celebrate successes in a timely manner
- Drive continuous improvement
- Drive continuous learning through critical reflection
- Build employee expertise and employability
- Generate self-correcting behaviour (employees begin to coach themselves)
- Foster a culture of learning, coaching and scientific / rigorous / validated behaviour
- Gives team leader opportunities to assess team talent and identify opportunities for development or re-deployment
- Gives team leader opportunities to work on his/her facilitation skills, build team collaboration skills and improve teamwork
This is clearly a very powerful practice. What do you most want to get out of it? And how do you need to tweak the practice to get what you want?
Classic Debriefing Script:
Debriefing comes in many forms. Each debriefing session is unique. Nevertheless, the classic debriefing format is still incredibly simple, flexible and powerful. And you can use it in a casual way, i.e., as a brief catch-up discussion with an employee, or you can use it in a rigorous, scientific way, i.e., by probing for details and analyzing the answers for more profound reflection and rigorous analysis.
Here is the classic script:
- Are we on track; did we hit our targets? Why / why not?
- What worked best? And why?
- What did not work as well; what challenges did we face? And why?
- What did we learn and how can we improve moving forward?
You can ask these questions in the past or present tense, as needed, in order to reflect on past or current action. You can also ask these questions in the future tense to think through and prepare for future (planned) actions.
The script is quite simple, but the practice takes a lifetime to master. See the last section of my blog “The Art of Leadership” in which I offer some concrete examples of the science, craft, and art of debriefing.
Finally, how do you know if your debriefing is working; if it is generating sufficient results; if it is adding value? What are the signs, indicators or measures of success for debriefing? See this blog on the Metrics of Debriefing.
Critical reflection is crucial to learning as such—part of the structure of learning itself. We reviewed (above) the many benefits of the practice of debriefing in the workplace. The core skill involved in debriefing (facilitative or reflective dialogue) is also valuable for problem solving and collaboration and is at the heart of both coaching and facilitative leadership. Moreover, the deep, active listening involved in this kind of practice is a crucial life skill, contributing both to the quality of relationships and an ethical stance toward others.
On your team, these very simple debriefing questions, when well facilitated, can help you do something far more important than writing “report cards” for your employees and projects. Regular debriefing can help you analyze why things turned out the way they did, stay on track, drive improvement and learn from experience. Enjoy the journey!
Advanture teaches leaders to facilitate debriefings on their teams and how to leverage that core skill for both coaching and facilitative leadership, i.e., sharing leadership to build leaders of teams and teams of leaders.
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