Wednesday, December 30, 2009

First Time - Part 13: The Debrief

This is part 13 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While I wrote this for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

I heard a great story a while ago from one of Vince Lombardi’s players about how demanding Lombardi was: the Packers had just won their first championship (1961) and in the first official team meeting after the game Lombardi gave them a short talk about preparing for next season, then proceeded to show the game-film from the championship game and started to comment – critique – the performances of this or that Green Bay player.

Lombardi had just put his finger on the most important single element of the pursuit of excellence: the ‘debrief.’

It may come in a half-dozen different ‘wrappers:’ Lessons Learned, After Action Report, Game Film, etc. But the process of coldly and clinically dissecting what you just did, identifying what worked AND why, what didn’t work AND why not, and then developing a follow-on, a change in course, a training plan, a way to take that knew knowledge and apply it to what you are doing – that process is the heart and soul of every pursuit of excellence since the first guy stared at the rock in his hand and decided it didn’t work as well as he had hoped.

If you have ever have observed an after-action report they are generally divided into two main groupings: really good or nearly worthless. And therein lies the real problem: putting together good after-action reports, good debriefs, is VERY hard. It takes a great deal of practice and the skill, once developed, requires constant effort to maintain. (Perhaps the best I have ever seen are from the instructors at the US Navy’s Top Gun (and the US Air Force’s Red Flag) aggressor squadrons. All the great boxing coaches are also excellent.)

But, as hard as they work at the entire debrief process, they have it ‘easy’ compared to many others: the debriefs that take place at Top Gun and Red Flag are of specific, short duration events. As an event expands in time from several hours to several days to several weeks to months or even years, and from dozens of people involved to hundreds to thousands, it becomes massively complex and dissecting it becomes ever more difficult.

The result is that, in most cases, real after action analysis and reporting never takes place. Try to find a detailed study by General Motors that discusses specific decisions that were made over the course of the last 25 years that led to the current situation.

Leadership in most corporations will respond that you can’t do this kind of thing, there would be legal repercussions, they don’t have the time or resources, and most unconvincingly of all: we know what really happened.

I have heard these responses before. Invariably, they are wrong on all counts. A review of the major decisions and their outcomes is a review of facts. If a law has or has not been broken or someone is liable for this or that action, the review won’t change that fact. Not reviewing what led you to your current situation will, however, protect the poor decision-maker. More importantly, it prevents everyone from clearly identifying what went wrong and why. And so, such organizations will, almost to a certainty, never achieve excellence.

For you, in your first leadership position, it is a skill that you should learn and nurture and spread. As you rise through the ranks of your organization you can spread this process, and you will be spreading one of the essential building-blocks of excellence.

So, what is a debrief? Simply put, it is an analytic review of what happened. And there are some rules for good debriefs (I’m using the term generically: it may be a single event – the welcoming ceremony for the visiting VIP that lasted 2 hours, or it may be the building of a nuclear reactor that took years, the essence is the same.) You will review the events – the what happened, then compare them to what was planned, then discuss the difference between the two and why there was a difference. As you step through this process you will start to recognize decision points, times when a decision either was made that led to specific results (good or bad), or could have been made and was not (and also led to specific results – good or bad).

And then the hard part starts. Because now you need to engage the brains of everyone involved and discern WHY this or that decision was made? What information did they have? What was the expected result? How did that compare to the actual result and what additional information would the decision-maker have needed to be able to see what the actual result would be?

Finally, what conclusions can you draw from this discussion? What additional information will you need for the next iteration? What additional preparation is needed? How do you ensure that you replicate the ‘goods’ and avoid the ‘bads’ that you just identified?

To assist in the debrief, take detailed notes on nearly everything. Practice taking notes; practice reconstructing events – it is a learned skill and one that you lose quickly when you don’t practice it. It will take time to get good at this, the first few times you do it you will probably be awful; it’s the cost of learning.

Remember the Number 1 Rule of debriefs: they must be impersonal. Debriefs are cold and factual, egos must be ‘left at the door.’ This includes everyone. If the Big Boss is there and he did something clearly wrong, it gets mentioned.*

What do you debrief? Nearly everything. While the common image of a debrief is pilots sitting around a ready-room after a mission discussing what happened, debriefs can – and should – be used for nearly any type of event, from a football game to a meeting with your investors, from a single discrete event to a multi-year construction program. Obviously, for long-duration events, you need to keep detailed notes and you should have regular meetings throughout the course of the project.

A debrief begins with the detailed description of what happened. Training yourself, and others, to observe and report accurately is neither simple nor quick. It will require a good deal of practice. But it is the foundation for the debrief. Whenever possible, take notes. If not possible, practice remembering key elements of any event. Focus on accuracy. (This also helps you in simply being a focused member of any team.)

Consider that most mundane of events, a meeting with some potential investors. You have been chosen to give the presentation. First, always try to bring at least one other person who can not only take notes, but is a good ‘observer of the human condition’ who can ‘read’ (think body language, tone, etc.) the investors and report accurately. Some of the things you may want to discuss when you and your team get back to the office would be:

What happened? = Sequence of events and outcomes
Overall impressions
Who should have been there? Who shouldn’t have been there?
What should have been said? What shouldn’t have been said?
Where should we have held the meeting?
What do we want to do for the next meeting?
Based on what we just learned, How do we change the presentation?

In the end, the key to any debrief is answering the question ‘Why?’ Why did you do ‘X?’ Why did the other guy do ‘Y?’ This will lead you to ask the important questions such as ‘What should I have done so that the other guy would have done ‘Z’ instead of ‘Y?’

More importantly, debriefs, reviews of what you have done, no matter how successful, allow you to understand the value of each decision in the entire process. This allows you to improve your planning, improve your decision-making and improve your execution.

* In the US military, during the debrief of any tactical aviation event (think of the movie Top Gun), no matter who is flying, if he did something wrong, it is pointed out. I have seen 2 and 3 star admirals and generals in debriefs and they are, for the purposes of the debrief, treated exactly the same as LT (jg) and 1stLT. Of course, I have seen one or two admirals who didn’t take it well – they are the exception to the rule. Nevertheless, if you know the boss has a delicate ego – treat it carefully.


At January 21, 2010 at 3:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Consider an essay on "The Prebrief". I am appreciating the value of "wargaming" my meetings, especially those expected to be confrontational, and apply many of the themes discussed in your essays. I like to look ahead.
I thoroughly enjoy your work and I put your comments to good use. All the best, warm regards, Dan


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