The firepower of debriefing

I recently had the pleasure of hearing David “Finch” Guenthner speak about a topic from which all of us in business can learn. Finch is a 2003 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and while serving on active Air Force duty, he accrued almost 2000 hours in the F-16C Fighting Falcon and the T-38C Talon (a fighter/bomber trainer). Finch flawlessly executed 80 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan where he was awarded four Air Medals for his actions. His impressive resume goes on much further, but let’s just say that we can learn a lot about operational excellence from him. He now helps run a consulting company called Afterburner, Inc.

Finch spoke on a variety of topics including what 9 g’s feels like at 50,000 feet. However, one topic I thought was especially valuable was on the power of debriefing.

It came as no surprise that after flying combat missions, the team would meet afterword to discuss the mission. but what Finch shared was that debriefings came after every flight no matter whether it was combat, training or anything in between. And the methodology of the debriefing is far more detailed and comprehensive that I could have imagined.

As businesspeople, how much emphasis do we put on gathering the team and talking through the recent pitch meeting, proposal submission, or important internal event? Sadly, probably not enough. Finch had impressive statistics about the measurable improvement his consultancy sees in clients who embrace debriefing.

Here are seven tips Finch provided for successful debriefing:

  1. Set a time and date for a debrief soon after the event before memories fade. Have the team provide to everyone their “focus points” one day prior to the meeting. Organize the debrief room to be free of distractions. No longer than 1 hour.
  2. In the Air Force, prior to a debriefing, everyone removes their name and rank from their uniform before entering the debriefing room. The idea is that criticism is not about people but instead about execution and results. Translated to the corporation, perhaps it needs to be said and understood by all that everyone has an equal say regarding feedback and comments about the “mission”.
  3. The debrief begins with the question, “Were we successful and did we meet our objectives?” What were the results? Note both successes and errors. Were there any ‘near misses’ – in other words, things that could have gone wrong but by luck, didn’t?
  4. For each result, perform a root cause analysis: List the result, Identify the immediate and root causes, look beyond personal blame and instead identify organizational failures.
  5. Develop an actionable lesson learned for each of the reoccurring root causes
  6. Identify a single point of accountability responsible for taking actions outlined in lessons learned.
  7.  Focus on the high note by not dwelling on the negative. Always find success in the event no matter how small they may seem.

Keep in mind that debriefs should never be punitive or negative because once they are perceived as such, they will cease to be useful. Positive debriefs containing useful lessons learned will maintain enthusiasm and morale for the next meeting or event.


About Mike Lake

Mike is the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Evergreen Trading. When not playing jazz trombone he is probably obsessing about writing content that will capture the attention and interest of business people and fellow learning junkies everywhere.

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