What’s the best way to debrief after something goes wrong?

Posted on October 11th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

When debriefing after things go wrong, ensure developmental intentThings don’t always go well in life. Your team may have been planning something for months – say a conference, a client pitch or any kind of major project – but it ends up going wrong. Of course things can go wrong away from the office too. A medical procedure accidentally endangers a patient’s life. A manoeuvre by the armed forces ends up in defeat. A mistake on an oil rig leads to environmental devastation.

What can you do in the aftermath?

Well, here’s what not to do: have people blame each other and get defensive. That way, no one learns.  Another thing not to do: be arrogant enough to think it’ll never happen again.

Researchers Scott Tannebaum and Christopher Cerasoli recently analysed what helps to make debriefs (sometimes also called ‘after-action reviews’) more effective. Looking at debriefs which involved a total of 2,136 people, they identified four factors that helped make debriefs successful:

  • Have a developmental intent – make it clear that the focus in the discussion on learning and improving rather than blame or punishment. The moment people start to feel that they are being blamed, the whole discussion becomes much less effective.
  • Ensure active self-learning – encourage all participants in the debrief to actively engage in the discussion rather than being passive recipients (i.e. just sitting there and being lectured).
  • Discuss specific events – recall and dissect specific incidents and actual behaviour rather than what generally happens in those sorts of situations.
  • Include multiple information sources – gather input into the discussion from many people rather than just a few.  When only a few people talk, there is considerably more room for bias and lack of objectivity.  Ideally, you should get feedback or input from people or observers who were not directly involved too.

In fact, the researchers also established that debriefs were effective for individuals too. You don’t have to be working in a team to conduct a debrief to figure out the lessons – you can do a debrief for yourself too.

When it comes to doing a solo debrief, I would add the following advice:

  • Treat yourself with self-compassion – treat yourself with kindness rather than beating yourself up.  This is related to the idea above that a debrief should have a developmental intent.  Studies show that people who are harshly self-critical don’t do themselves any favours as it can actually increase distress rather than promoting learning.
  • Take notes – it’s always easier to break a problem down into its smaller components when you jot down a few notes.  When you write your thoughts down, it’s easier to structure your thinking and make sure that you aren’t just going round and round in mental circles.

Things don’t always go smoothly.  But rather than simply moving on, smart people look back to figure out what they could do better next time.  That way, you help make better decisions in the future.  So here’s the question: are you a smart person who will run debriefs – or one of those not-so-smart people who thinks they know better?

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