Top Five Elements of an Effective Debrief

Plan in advance, create a safe forum and be sure to be honest 

No hotelier or meeting planner has ever executed the perfect event. With this understanding, it is clear that we must use the debrief as a tool to accelerate the experience of both parties to ensure that the leaders of both organizations get the honest feedback they need to make good decisions in the future.

There are top five parts of a successful debrief:

1. Plan it in advance. Debriefs will never happen unless they are planned in advance. This is not because each side doesn't want to debrief, but simply because we are all so busy that the debrief will easily get brushed aside to take that additional phone call or fit in one more meeting.

Meeting planners can schedule debrief sessions in a similar manner. You might create a standard to debrief 30 minutes after the conclusion of the last segment of each day. By the same token, when you're back in the home office, you can create a standard of holding a weekly debrief every Friday at 4 p.m. This is your chance to review the progress made against the "Results Desired" that you laid out in the Monday morning briefing.

The duration of your debriefs are mission dependent. Tailor them to correspond to the significance of the event. Where you might only need three minutes to debrief after a small on-site meeting with your client, you might need 30 minutes to debrief on Friday afternoon at the end of a long week. In any case, build debriefs into your schedule and, where appropriate, add them to your calendar. Establishing a regular rhythm to your business will help you and your team identify challenges and develop best practices.

2. Make it a safe forum. The debrief must be a safe place where all team members — both inhouse and suppliers — are free to share their open and honest observations on how they and their teammates performed during the event.

At the start of the debrief, the lead planner should quickly be reminding everyone, "For the next 15 minutes we will be debriefing. This is our chance to learn and get better. I may provide some direct feedback to all of you and I hope you will do the same to me. I know I can't improve without your honest input."

It is imperative that you send a clear message that the debrief is a safe environment dedicated to learning and improving.

3. Review the meeting objectives. Write your prior agreed-upon objectives down for all to see. These objectives will limit the scope of the debrief and will prevent a 15- or 30-minute focused learning session from turning into a 45- to 60-minute rambling conversation. By only debriefing against the results desired, you have the opportunity to refocus the group when someone starts to lead you down a "rat hole."

4. Be honest, even if it hurts. Now that we've reset a safe tone for learning and clearly defined our debriefing objectives, we can let the feedback begin. Meeting planners should approach debriefs with ruthless honesty. If one of our objectives for the day was to have zero A/V problems, and the A/V equipment at the luncheon keynote malfunctioned and delayed the presentation, the team member in charge of A/V should own up to the problem, identify the source of the error (e.g. not allowing enough time in advance for the A/V check) and offer up a solution (new standard is that A/V checks occur at least one hour prior to presentations) to prevent recurrences.

Also call out and celebrate successes. If one of your objectives was to have each event of the day's meeting start within five minutes of the scheduled time, and you hit your objective as planned, stop and celebrate that success. Praise your people for a job well done and then challenge them to ask the question, "Why were we successful?" Maybe it was a matter of having proper signage at all points of egress and color-coded maps to guide conferees directly to their next sessions. Perhaps adding 15 minutes to the schedule compensated for the limited elevator capacity of the venue.

Identify the root causes of successes and failures alike, capture them, and use the knowledge gained to continually improve the performance of each individual and the entire team at tomorrow's meeting.

5. Do a Recap. Always sum up the key points before ending the debrief.

A typical debrief recap might sound something like this: "Team, overall we ran a great meeting today and the client is very pleased. We learned to create a new standard around A/V that mandates that presenters conduct all A/V checks a minimum of one hour prior to their presentation. We also learned that our new signage and mapping ensured that attendees knew where they were going and arrived on time. Tammy will make sure that those signs are up again tomorrow, and that additional maps are available for any of our attendees who lost them today. Great job, team! Let's keep working to make this a world-class event for our client."

In conclusion, the debrief benefits workers of all experience levels. New hires learn more quickly how the business operates and the role they can play to make it even better. The debrief enables your experienced people to continue to learn and grow, and at the same time it reinforces the standards that make your company successful. Most importantly, the debrief creates a safe environment so that leaders receive the honest feedback they need to keep your company growing and striving for peak performance every day.

Anthony "AB" Bourke is the CEO and founder of Mach 2 Consulting. He is also a highly experienced F-16 fighter pilot who has accumulated more than 2,700 hours of flight time. He has spoken to more than 50,000 people in 11 different countries applying Fighter Pilot Principles to the business world.