Debriefing: Building Your Culture of Learning

By Carey Lohrenz, the Author of Fearless Leadership

Companies of any size can reap the rewards of a fighter pilot’s culture of performance by driving a culture focused on peak performance and execution, and incorporating constant learning habits. We call this a “culture of learning,” and it’s a hallmark of carrier aviation. The ideas of learning before doing, learning during and learning after, guide all that we do.

Most leaders and managers that I work with know about the benefits of having a performance-based culture. What I’m often asked is, “How does my organization achieve this high-performing organization culture?” The “Debrief” is an essential part of our learning-after-doing process. Whether it’s scrutinizing a go-to-market plan, a sales plan, a product rollout, or your end-of-the-week wrap-up, quick wins can come from sharing what you know.

In the Navy, we debrief immediately following each and every flight. Why? Because it is that critical. We must review the details of our performance in order to stay alive and improve—and the details get murkier the longer you wait. There’s also the fact that because debriefs occur regularly, we are constantly improving (and at a rate faster than our competition). Who doesn’t want that?

Even if the team executes a plan well, there’s always something that could be done better, more effectively, more efficiently. And, as we all know, sometimes things go completely off the rails. No matter where you are on that success spectrum, it’s vital that everyone debrief after the execution, assessing how the previous phases went and identifying the takeaways.

A Culture of Excellence Means You Never Stop Learning
Another question I’m often asked is, “How much time should be allotted for a debriefing?” Keep in mind, taking the time to improve actually gives you time back in the end by reducing execution errors and firefighting. That said, depending on the nature of a project, a debrief can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. The important thing is that you take the time to actually do it because it allows you to identify any shortfalls or gaps in performance sooner than your competition does. And trust me, if your competition is smart, they’re already debriefing based on their encounter with you.

Eliminating the Fear Factor
Here are a few questions to help you structure your debrief: What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Why were there differences? What can we learn? How can we incorporate that lesson into the next execution?

The goal is to improve performance but people still avoid the debrief because they shy away from accountability and fear their performance being assessed. To discourage this, start each debriefing by emphasizing to your team that the intention of this phase isn’t to shovel blame on a certain team member. It’s not about who is right, but what is right. Nothing said is personal. Debriefing is simply an exercise in which a group of high-performing individuals come together as a team to identify how they can take their game to the next level and learn how to do things better. Making it a habit, preferably face-to-face (although via telephone or videoconference works well too), keeps the organization focused on learning and continuous improvement.

Also key: Ego and rank have no place in the process. Everyone is on the same level and everyone has a voice. If you develop a culture that allows people to debrief without getting their feelings hurt, you can learn quicker, create faster, gain an advantage over your competition, and accelerate professional growth and opportunities among your people.

Take the time to debrief at the end of each project . . . after an unexpected event . . . during a lengthy rollout implementation. Trust me, it’s worth the time, no matter how busy you are.