• Debriefing

    Debriefing is a powerful practice that is equally valuable for execution and employee development. This blog outlines how and why it works.

    Learn to work and work to learn.

    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, and habit rather than on facts, evidence, and analysis — and you are probably not gaining much real work experience and not learning much on the job.

    Many people work hard for decades, but never become experts in their field. Why? What makes the difference between working hard (being busy) and becoming an expert in your field? A key differentiator is “critical reflection”: stepping back to reflect on what you are doing and what is working. Critical reflection, or debriefing, turns everyday work into high performance learning.

    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.

    Use debriefing to keep your projects on track and to analyze why things turned out the way they did, learn from your experiences, and drive continuous improvement—for yourself and your team.

    First, let’s map how debriefing fits into the cycle of action; second, list the benefits of debriefing; and third, discuss 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—in real time. For every important or complex project, goal, or KPI, 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 require a good plan. The purpose of the plan is to support successful execution (action): 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 as necessary to stay on track, as per your plan. Of course, you sometimes have to adjust your plan, e.g. when the world changes and as new challenges and opportunities arise.

    Debriefing sessions are usually scheduled around the major milestones and deadlines of a project. If there is too much time between milestones, 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 your key projects 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 getting what you want. (If you don’t know what you want, you’re probably not going to get it.)


    1. Focus: keep important issues on the table and top of mind .
    2. Execution: monitor progress to plan so you can fine tune efforts and stay on track.
    3. Accountability: enhance accountability for action and results.
    4. Appreciation: identify and celebrate successes in a timely manner.
    5. Improvement: drive continuous improvement.
    6. Learning: drive continuous learning through critical reflection, which builds employee expertise and employability.
    7. Generate self-correcting behaviour (employees begin to coach themselves).
    8. Foster a culture of learning, coaching, and scientific / rigorous / validated behaviour.
    9. Gives team leader opportunities to assess team talent and identify opportunities for development or re-deployment.
    10. 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. You can use it in a casual way, i.e. as a brief catch-up discussion with an employee, and 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:

    1. Are we on track? Did we hit our targets? Why / why not?
    2. What worked best? And why?
    3. What did not work as well? What challenges did we face? And why?
    4. 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. As a leadership practice, debriefing is part science, part craft, and part art.


    Critical reflection is crucial to learning as such—part of the structure of learning itself. I listed 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!

    Incrementa teaches leaders to facilitate debriefings on their teams, and how to leverage that core skill for execution, coaching, and facilitative leadership, i.e. sharing leadership to build leaders of teams and teams of leaders.

    Copyright © 2016 Joel Shapiro, Ph.D., all rights reserved.

    Joel Shapiro is a leadership educator and culture guru with Incrementa Consulting in Calgary, Canada. Joel is passionate about developing leadership capacity, making employees part of the solution, and finding the perfect blend of humanity and business performance. You can read more of Joel’s thoughts on the Incrementa website and on Twitter.

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