Don't Forget to Debrief

By: Apryl Motley, CAE

Take a cue from the military and assess results of your activities against your objectives.

Your association may need to take a step back before it can move forward. In some organizations, the idea of looking back at specific projects to determine what went well and what could have been better is uncomfortable. They don't want to relive or dwell on mistakes.

However, James D. Murphy and William M. Duke, authors of The Debrief Imperative, make a strong case for organizations adopting the military's long-held practice of debriefing, or "analyzing the results of a plan, project, or mission in order to develop lessons learned and improve future execution."

As Murphy, a former pilot in the U.S. Air Force, writes, "The simple act of assessing what went right or wrong at the end of any task, project, or mission is a learning opportunity that simply can't be ignored."

Yet, the practice of debriefing is frequently ignored by organizations.

"People feel like they don't have time," Murphy says. "Organizations have to realize that what they are doing today can be improved if they make time to debrief." At the core of debriefing is a commitment to measuring plans against actual results.

He cites absence of "clear mission objectives to debrief against" as the second-most-common reason organizations do not debrief. "You debrief a specific mission objective," Murphy says. "It has to be very specific to business actions that you're going to take in improving the next activity that aligns to your strategy. It's about the future and not the past."

Debriefing can take place in small or large groups, and it can happen at every level of an organization. "A frontline manager [who] has daily objectives may conduct a daily debrief with a team of five for 15 minutes," Murphy says. "Conversely, a board of directors might debrief on an annual or quarterly basis."

Regardless of frequency, debriefing must be "part of your organization's DNA," but it takes time to establish a process that your team will trust. "It won't happen the first time or the 10th time, but leaders need to make it very clear and apparent that we're debriefing to improve our next activity since we fell short," Murphy says. "Leadership is about improving future execution."

He offers association leaders these additional strategies for building the trust required to create a culture of debriefing and continuous improvement:

Eliminate barriers to open communication. Dispense with hierarchies. Set the tone for a nameless and rankless debrief. "If you truly want to get to the root causes of [poor execution], you have to eliminate these barriers," Murphy says.

Engage in inside/outside criticism. Acknowledge things you could have done better and then solicit feedback from your team: "Is there anything that I could have done better to execute this specific mission objective or business activity?"

"Debriefing improves an organization's situational awareness. It creates a high level of awareness around what's happening today that will get us to our goals and objectives," Murphy says. "If an organization is debriefing, it is staying one step ahead of the competitive rate of change."

Apryl Motley, CAE, is a writer, editor, and communications consultant based in Columbia, Maryland, and a past editor of several association publications. Email: [email protected]

Apryl Motley, CAE