Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Eduardo Salas talk about team development. During his session, he made a statement that debriefs are a “simple and underutilized strategy” in team dynamics.
I’m a fan of a good debrief. And I believe being able to conduct an effective debrief takes planning. You just can’t “wing” a debrief. So I reached out to Dr. Scott Tannenbaum, president of The Group for Organizational Effectiveness (gOE), an organizational development consulting and research firm. He’s the author of the blog “On Teams” and has over 25 years of experience with all types of teams in a wide variety of industries.
Dr. Tannenbaum, can you share with readers the definition of a debrief?
During a team debrief, team members reflect upon a recent experience, discuss what went well, and identify opportunities for improvement. They try to build a common understanding (e.g., about challenges and responsibilities) and establish agreements to ensure future success.
A debrief can be conducted at any time, for example at the conclusion of a work shift, mid-way through a project, or simply as a periodic check in. They are appropriate for any team that needs good teamwork: management teams, project teams, sales teams; really any work team. We’ve even run them with medical teams, military teams, and NASA.
Why should a company want to debrief well? Do you have any research that supports the impact of debriefs on the business?
Companies recognize the need for experiential learning but often don’t know how to promote it. They hope that a team will get better over time or that a person will benefit from an assignment; but unfortunately that doesn’t always happen naturally. Debriefs provide a mechanism for prompting, guiding, and promoting learning from experience.
We recently published a meta-analysis (a statistical analysis of all prior empirical studies on debriefing) that showed that teams that conduct debriefs perform an average of 20% better! That’s strong support for a relatively low-cost intervention.
How can someone create a good debrief? Are there steps or a formula for what makes up an effective debrief?
We’ve observed hundreds of debriefs over the years and noticed five common pitfalls:
- The leader telling the team what they need to do better rather than asking for their perspective
- Focusing strictly on task work (technical stuff) not on teamwork issues (how we worked together)
- Team members who felt they couldn’t weigh in or be heard
- Wasting time discussing areas of agreement and avoiding challenging topics
- Looking backward (reflect/discuss) but not forward (action plans/agreements)
So an effective facilitator (the team leader or an outsider) starts the debrief with a few ground rules, then asks the team for their observations about a recent experience — what happened, what went well and what didn’t. They provide ample structure to the discussion and ask questions to involve all team members and ensure they’ve considered teamwork challenges. A good debrief wraps up with a summary of lessons learned, and most importantly the establishment of tangible go forward plans – what the team will do in the future.
Is there any way to recover after a bad debrief?
Reflecting on your team’s experience and discussing how you want to work together differently going forward is usually a positive experience. But if you’ve conducted a debrief where you exhibited one or more of the pitfalls, I’d simply suggest that you learn from that experience and structure your next one a little differently.
Many thanks to Dr. Tannenbaum for sharing his experience and expertise with us. If you want to learn more about debriefs, Dr. Tannenbaum authored a chapter on conducting team debriefs in the book Developing and Enhancing Teamwork in Organizations: Evidence-based Best Practices and Guidelines and you can visit his website DebriefNow.com.1