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The Power of Debriefing

Richard Mann
October 1, 2020

Friend of MF, Richard Mann, began his career in the Royal Marines, before completing UK Special Forces selection to serve with the Special Boat Service (SBS). Below he explores how the debrief element of military training and operations can be applied to improve and sustain performance in a business context.

The debrief element of training and operations drives the pursuit of excellence in the Royal Marines/SBS and helps bring clarity to lessons learned for future operations.

Critically it is a standardised and expected part of the process. This ensures every individual and team naturally reviews their part in the operation in order to feedback to the wider group.

Open and Critical

This approach creates an environment where people can learn and feedback how they saw the operation unfold from their perspective. This would include what they felt went well, what they may improve upon and what they may develop - or change - in the future.

The process is also there to challenge and critically review outcomes in an objective manner. It is not about searching for scapegoats.

This understanding and approach is crucial to ensuring everyone is honest and open. This, in turn, further ensures trust and cohesion is maintained and developed throughout the teams and organisation.

Debrief Types

There are generally two types of debriefs. Short term ‘Hot’ debriefs and longer term ‘structured’ debriefs.

As the name suggests, hot debriefs take place almost immediately after a task is completed. They enable a ‘visceral’ view point of how people felt things went. These typically take place at team and troop level and detail very specific actions.

Protracted ‘structured’ debriefs give more time for reflection and analysis of areas for development. These debriefs often look at the wider perspective of operations; sometimes at service level and beyond. This, in turn, helps develop direction, focus and future mission statements.

Debrief Goals

The main goals of the debriefing process are to:

  • Clarify what took place - in chronological order
  • Resolve misperceptions/misunderstandings
  • Provide context in which to emphasise positive accomplishments
  • Identify lessons learned for future operations
  • Enhance team/organisation cohesion

Debrief Process

The first things to clarify as part of the process are who will conduct the debrief, who it is intended for and when it should occur.

During the debrief itself all team members or specific team leaders should be asked to input - describing in chronological order what took place and what their actions were.

This process should be conducted in an environment that allows everyone a voice, regardless of rank. It’s vital people speak honestly without fear of recrimination.

The focus of the debrief should also relate to the planning and orders process that took place before the operation i.e. What was our mission? Why we’re being asked to complete the mission? How were we planning to conduct the operation?

Note: It is important that all team members and team leaders input from their perspective. Even if people have nothing to add at specific points the structure of the debrief is paramount. This helps draw out thinking from the team and ensures a standardised approach is used.

The debrief process can split into three main areas:

  • Objective facts – the truth
  • Effects – subjective personal interpretation
  • Transfer of agreed learning – shared understanding

Questions for each area may include:

Objective facts and reality of what took place

  • What specifically happened?
  • What did you see/feel?
  • When did this happen?
  • Who did what? (roles and responsibilities)

Interpretation and the effect actions had

  • What does this mean?
  • What were the team’s successes?
  • Which behaviours/actions had the most effect on the team and its members?
  • What judgments did you make?
  • What assumptions did you make?
  • What helped/hindered the team?

Learning and future intentions

  • What do we choose to do next time?
  • What good practice can we take with us?
  • How can we apply this learning next time?
  • What do we want to start/stop/continue doing?
  • Where do we need to pay increased focus/attention?

Debriefs and Business

Despite best intentions, many businesses and organisations do not put enough emphasis - or even include - debriefings as part of their operational process. Those that do often don’t standardise the structure and timing of the debriefings they conduct.

This approach limits learning and, in many cases, proliferates ‘bad’ practice and poor performance creating tension amongst co-workers, teams and organisations.

People believe that in certain situations there is nothing significant to debrief about. However, in some cases the act of debriefing can matter more than the debrief itself. Awareness of this ensures the standard is maintained and followed by all.

Improving Performance

Businesses can definitely learn from the tried and tested methods of the military, utilising debriefs to enhance performance and cohesion.

It needs to become part of the culture of organisations. This avoids the call for ‘crisis’ debriefs when something has gone wrong which are typically reactive and can make people respond defensively.

By focusing on the debrief process and getting the small elements correct in a disciplined way, organisations can create greater freedom for people to take action and be more effective in the long term.

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