There’s a young man that I’ve referenced in a past note that I’ve had the pleasure of watching develop over more than a decade. As a recent high school graduate he coached our youngest son in ski racing. He continued to coach within our local ski program for a few more years earning educational accreditation as well as additional responsibilities. He climbed from weekend coach to full-time seasonal within the club. He then took a role with Alpine Canada and continued to climb the coaching ladder. Now a decade in to his work career, he’s travelled five continents and more than a dozen countries coaching some of the best in the world at his sport. He’s been to World Championships and two Winter Olympics where his athletes have won medals. He’s also won several coaching awards for the quality of work he provides his athletes. At the end of the Beijing Winter Olympic season he was promoted to become head coach of the Paralympic Alpine program for Canada.
As his travels take him far and wide, we, unfortunately, have less opportunity to visit. Moreover, now, instead of him coming to me for a suggestion or input, I seek his guidance. I lean on his experiences to learn. Enjoying a catch-up coffee conversation together last summer, I asked him of all coaching tools at his disposal which did he consider most effective. Without hesitation he offered the debrief as his most depended upon tool. The debrief is a planned process for reviewing an activity after the fact. In its basic form, a debrief is simply asking about an activity recently completed a couple of questions like what went well and what could be improved? By debriefing we’re comparing the reality experienced with what our expectations were after the fact. Did things go as planned? Were we somehow surprised?
Debriefs seem to have their origin in the military where they are known as an AAR or After Action Review. Debriefs in military contexts are undertaken for two main purposes. First, they are done to review what happened with hope of uncovering avenues for further refinement and improvement. Second, they are done in order to offer participants an opportunity to decompress and release pent up emotion or stress. Debriefs, too, are part of psychological therapeutic environments where patients debrief with a professional in order to better make sense of traumatic experiences. In medical settings doctors refer to a post-mortem as a formal setting where past events are reviewed in order to learn. As more domains realize the benefits of establishing a debriefing process the number of settings in which they are used, too, expands.
A mark of expertise is the ability to recall in vivid detail a past performance. Have you watched professional golfers give a post-round interview where they reflected on their round. Their ability to recall each shot on every hole over the preceding four hours is incredible. The reach of their recall is real and reflective of their mental connection to their performances. They can talk about each shot as if it just happened. They recall not just the shot but the decision behind it as well as its outcome. They are able to distinguish between a bad decision and a bad outcome. The two aren’t the same. They ruminate on the bad decision while dusting off bad outcomes. If the decision was decent but the shot ended up with a bad bounce or a tough lie, they remain confident in their approach. With reflection they are able to distinguish decisions from score. Even if the round result wasn’t ideal, were the tactics solid, how was technique? If one is executing their plan and performing physically, but others did better, that’s not a reason for remorse. Reflection on a round of golf is done by all top-level players. Their debriefs of a given round become the basis of their planning for the next round.
Chess players, too, depend on debriefing games played as a key success factor facilitating further improvement. There’s a strong positive relationship between the level of skill achieved and the amount of time spent debriefing games. Grandmasters can spend as much time or more reviewing games they have played, especially those lost, than the time taken to play a game. Reflecting on decision making during the game to see where an advantage may have been inadvertently afforded an opponent is a key part of a chess player’s debriefing process. The ability to recall moves made in a game both their own and those of their opponents can be quite impressive to listen to. The ability to reflect and recall a past performance, which is effectively the definition of a debrief, is a mark of skill. The best get good at this.
In sport, as in business, the primary purpose of debriefing is to build in performance improvements. Metacognition is thinking about our thinking. It is a proven way in which we can improve our abilities. Ulrich Boser wrote in Learn Better, “When it comes to learning, one of the biggest issues is that people don’t engage in metacognition nearly enough. We don’t do enough to understand the things that we don’t know. At the same time, people feel too confident in what they do know.” Debriefing is about creating space to think about our thinking on a specific subject and event. It facilitates awareness and prompts us to look for blindspots. What may we be missing? Reflecting on our performances can serve as a counter-balance against over-confidence.
The benefits of debriefing can be highest after a sub-par performance. When things have gone smoothly, reflecting on the event can be fun and feels good However, little learning occurs. Participants spend more time patting each other on the back for a job well done. They leave with little actionable information to make adjustments for future gains. A principle offered by investing legend Ray Dalio in his book Principles is that “pain plus reflection equals progress.” Pain on its own doesn’t create gain. Only when we experience something other than ideal and we think about how it differed from our desired outcome do we create the opportunity for improving. It is when we are looking back on a performance that didn’t go well where the learning opportunities can jump out.
In a work context debriefs can be used to review sales presentations, internal presentations, meetings, and business decisions. Each of these types of events can and should be reviewed and reflected upon after they occur in order to maximize opportunity for learning and improvement. With respect to a meeting, for example, a debrief could consist of seeking answers to questions like the following. Moreover, meetings could be recorded so that the replay could be viewed providing more objective evidence than recall alone.
- Who attended? Were the expected attendees present?
- Was there an agenda? Did participants know why they were at today’s meeting?
- Did the discussion follow the agenda? Did we stay on track and on time?
- How did I do with respect to engaging contributions from attendees with respect to item X?
- Did attendees leave with a clear picture of what the meeting decided?
- Was responsibility for action items clearly assigned and agreed upon by those involved?
- What was the assessment of attendees as to what went well and what could be improved upon at the meeting?
Debriefing should be built in to your process so it becomes an expected outcome. Debriefs can be done after practices or performances. Big or small, after all, do a debrief. If the effort is saved for only for occasional, high stakes events, then it may add to the pressure and make things seem bigger than they are. Working debriefs into daily activity ensures that they are expected and welcomed part of every event. Scheduling debriefs reduces emotional baggage that may come with spontaneous sessions. Building the expectation that a debrief will be done at a predictable time after all events/performances/practices sets the stage and makes it a less emotional experience. All participants (even if doing alone) know it is coming and when. It allows for preparation.
They don’t have to take long. They can be as short as a minute or two. In order to maximize the benefit of fresh recollection, the debrief is done as shortly as possible after the event has been completed. The time for a debrief may be related to the time of the activity being debriefed. That is the shorter the action under review, the shorter the debrief can be. If, for example, you’re debriefing a recent one hour meeting, a debrief should be capable of being done in under five minutes. If an entire budgetary period like a fiscal year is being reviewed, then the debrief time allotment should be longer. Perhaps, a day long annual review. Another factor to consider for time allocation for debriefs besides the time of the activity being debriefed would be the importance of the activity. The higher the stakes, the longer the debrief.
The purpose of a debrief is to reflect on a performance recently completed. The performance should be clear. The evaluation questions should, too, be clear and known in advance.
They can be done independently or together with peers, a coach, or facilitator. Whether done alone or in a group setting should be determined collaboratively. If the debrief is being done with a performer and coach or manager together, then both should be open to contribute to the discussion of both parties’ roles. Debriefs should be positive experiences even if the conversation or thinking revolves around a negative outcome. The goal is to be honest and open in order to seek improvements. Defensiveness doesn’t serve.
You should leave a debrief with a deliberate objective towards which to work. In what way will you take what you have learned during the debrief forward into a future performance? Is it strategy, tactic, technique, preparation, or something else that will be the goal of changing going forward? The goal is to leave the session with something specific that is within your control to influence as a target. It should be something that is measurable and can be discussed in a future debrief.
Debriefs become the planning for the next performance. In a prior article we talked about taking time to pre-plan in advance of performances. The goal of pre-planning is to anticipate problems in advance. Debriefs after a performance are used to reflect on what was done. Did the performance dovetail with the direction that was planned? Debriefing is done to connect past performance with getting closer to target in the future. Debriefs lead in to mental contrasting and pre-planning for the future. Pre-planning and debriefs complement each other creating a virtuous cycle for improvement. Pre-planning help us prepare and debriefs aid in reviewing what happened. Debriefs help us determine if we’re on track or whether adjustments may be needed. The core question being asked during a debrief is: With the recent event top of mind are there things we can learn about what just happened in order to improve in future efforts? There’s no way to get better at something without being intentional about improvement. This implies a form of debrief. We have to evaluate what we’re doing in order to be able to refine and improve our future actions. At their root, debriefs are a form of seeking feedback. Seeking feedback is a key success factor for high performers and a subject we’ll touch upon in a future article.