5 Steps to a Winning Team Debrief

You can’t make your next project better if you don’t learn what worked (and what didn’t) the last time
5 Steps to a Winning Team Debrief

Have you ever taken part in a team debrief dominated by one loud co-worker? Did your last debrief fall apart amid accusations and blame? Maybe your last project was such a hit, no one felt the need to post-mortem it. (After all, what was there to talk about?)

Fact is, debriefing is a valuable step at the conclusion of a project. A strong debrief allows teams to come together, reflect, regroup, gather lessons and move forward with confidence. So why aren’t more teams debriefing effectively and consistently? The simple answer is many don’t know how.

To help make your next debrief a success, we have enlisted Diana Drury, director of team and executive coaching, MBA/Master programs at Smith School of Business. Here, she shares the importance of a strong team debrief and the steps to make it work.

A time for candour

A team debrief is an opportunity for your team to come together after a project and reflect on what just happened, says Drury. “It’s a time to share openly and candidly. It’s a time when everyone involved has the chance to contribute.” 

Teams that have experienced problems need to debrief so they can right the ship and not repeat their mistakes and shortcomings. High-performing teams need to capture the reasons their last project was a success.

Twice the fun

Team debriefs should not be a one-time event. Indeed, Drury recommends two per project: one as soon as the project is complete, then again after your team receives external feedback (from managers or clients). Both are necessary to generate a complete picture of your team’s strengths and challenges. Why?

In the moment, your team is able to reflect on your experiences in a detailed manner. “If you wait too long, new projects start, and you forget what went well and what went not so well,” Drury says.

Nevertheless, if you don't regroup after external feedback comes in, you miss the opportunity to incorporate those comments and constructive feedback pieces into your plan moving forward. “Sometimes the way we feel something went is at odds with how the client or manager perceives it. That reality check is important to incorporate into the debriefing process,” Drury says.

The main goal of any debrief is to generate an honest and detailed “file of lessons learned.” Here are the five steps to execute a strong debrief every time:

Step 1: Brainstorm the good

With help from a non-biased facilitator, have teammates go around the room and bring forward something that, in their opinion, worked during the project’s execution.

Think of this as a brainstorming session. Everyone on the team has input. There are no wrong ideas. Each team member contributes one (or more) positive things they believe worked well. Go around the table until all the positives are exhausted. It’s important that the facilitator capture everyone’s points on a screen or whiteboard. “Remember, this isn’t an opportunity to challenge your teammates’ perceptions or to question their contributions. Instead, focus on generating a long list of things that went well during the project,” shares Drury.

Step 2: Gain consensus on the positives

The next step is to review all the positive inputs and vote on your team’s Top 3 things that went well. You need to take forward what you know works. "So, the big question is: What’s working for us? That’s how you generate consensus," Drury explains.

Step 3: Brainstorm the bad

Undertake the same round-the-table process to come up with a list of things that didn’t work. Again, there’s no discussion or feedback within the team during this process. As you go around the room, everyone contributes what they feel could have been better.

Step 4: Gain consensus on the negatives

Vote to rank the Top 3 things that did not work so well for your team. The point here is to identify these items so you can cut them from your process and not waste time going forward. “It’s not about placing blame,” says Drury. “Remember, you’re a team.”

Step 5: Generate a file of lessons learned and move forward

Capturing what worked and what didn't into a “file of lessons learned” allows you to talk about these areas under the framework of what your team is going to do differently moving forward. This file becomes the basis for your next team project. It allows you to take what worked to the next level and avoid what didn’t. 

Become a high-performing team

Ultimately, the purpose of debriefing is to become more efficient and effective, and spend less time repeating mistakes and processes that do not work. With a little practice, says Drury, “any team can execute strong team debriefs and become a high-performing team.”

– Julia Lefebvre

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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