How to Debrief

Debriefing: A Cheap and Easy Way to Accelerate Performance by More Than 25%!

It is known by many names. In the U.S. Army it is called the after-action review or AAR. In business it often goes by the unfortunate name of post-mortem. In psychology and military aviation, however, it is known as a debrief. Debriefing is a soft technology that began to develop out of necessity following World War II. It’s not just an American military practice, it is practiced in military organizations all over the world. It is a principal contributing factor to the incredible safety record of modern aviation.

For instance, there were 36.4 million commercial flights worldwide in 2013.i Pilots flew over 3 billion passengers that year. In spite of the complexity and inherent dangers of air travel, only 210 people died in aircraft accidents. For comparison, there were 33,804 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. alone that same year.ii

motor vehicle accident

We know that debriefing works; that it is a powerful continuous performance improvement tool. Shockingly, there was very little research to prove it when James D. Murphy and I wrote The Debrief Imperative (Première, 2011) five years ago. We had been teaching debriefing to businesses and other organizations all over the world since 1996. We saw its effectiveness first hand. But, we couldn’t attribute the success of aviation safety to debriefing alone since there were many other contributing factors within an aviation industry practice known as Crew Resource Management or CRM. There was a mountain of experience and peripheral evidence, but no specific study to quantify the benefit of debriefing. Until 2013, the only serious study on debriefing had been conducted within the U.S. and Israeli militaries, hardly the universal application we were looking for to show the value of debriefing to businesses and other teams and organizations. But, now there is clear proof, and it is stunning.

Recently, Scott Tannenbaum and Christopher Cerasoli conducted a meta-analysis of 46 separate studies of debriefing to discover that it increased performance by an average of 25 percent! To be honest, we believed that was a little low. Our experience demonstrated higher returns. But, Tannenbaum and Cerasoli’s study suggested we might still be right. The reason is that, as the researchers admitted, there was a lack of consistent structure in debriefing practice and that “. . . some conceptual ambiguity surrounds the current definition of debrief.”iii Thus, when debriefing is team-focused and structured, the researches saw a thirty-eight percent increase in performance. That is more in line with what we have witnessed in our work over the past two decades.iv

Two military planes in the air conducting an exercise.

So, if debriefing is so effective, why doesn’t everyone do it? It isn’t that debriefing is difficult to do, or that it takes too much time, or even that it is costly in resources. Tannenbaum and Cerasoli’s study cites that debriefing is both cheap and easy. The reason debriefing isn’t practised more often in organizations is that leaders simply don’t know how to do it and those that try their hand at it don’t have the simple structure and basic training to capitalize on its full value.

How to Conduct a Debrief:

We’ve known that debriefing requires the right structure or process for decades. That’s what made it so successful in military aviation and that’s what we’ve taught. Our process looks like this. We call it the Stealth℠ debrief which is an acronym to help facilitators remember the sequence of seven steps.

Set the Time – Determine when you are going to debrief up front, before you begin a project or start your work.

Tone – The tone of a debrief is openness and honesty. The leader or facilitator should admit their own errors up front to show that everyone is susceptible to error and that candid discussion is expected.

ExecutionReview how the plan or project was executed. What were the results that the team should focus on to improve?

Analyze ExecutionDetermine the causes and root causes of successes and errors. Debriefs are not about blaming people, but about finding ways to improve the team and organization.

Lesson Learned – What can you, the team, or some other team do differently to avoid an error or repeat a success? Developing an actionable lesson learned means writing down some specific ways to improve or change activities in the future.

Transfer Lessons Learned – How will you tell others about what you have learned? How will you store it? Hold on to learning. Don’t let it go.

High NoteWhat’s past is past. Always end a debrief on a high note. Don’t keep beating yourselves up when things didn’t go so well. Find something positive to summarize at the end of a debrief.

The best part about debriefing is that once you’ve learned how and begin to become comfortable with it, it doesn’t take much time. If you are performing debriefs often, they take only about 20 minutes while the more complex discussions should be limited to an hour. The key ingredient to successful debriefing is honesty. That’s not always easy. But start doing it and people will become more comfortable with candidness. That’s when you will see performance sky-rocket.


ii Traffic Safety Facts. U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2014

iii Scott I. Tannenbaum and Christopher P. Cerasoli. “Do Team and Individual Debriefs Enhance Performance? A Meta-Analysis.” Human Factors. Vol. 55, No. 1, February 2013, pp. 231-245.

iv Ibid

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