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How debriefing can help your team tackle tough problems

Let’s say you’re working with a team on an important project. You have a few meetings, and you put together a plan. But not long after the tasks are assigned and everyone gets started, things start to fall apart. Someone misses a deadline. There aren’t enough resources. The outcome isn’t what you anticipated.

Sure, it’s disappointing—but it’s also a learning opportunity. If you want to learn from what happened in the past and drive the growth of your team, you should get in the habit of debriefing.

At the core of debriefing is reflection. Reflection-on-action occurs after an activity or project has taken place, when you and your team think about what you did, judge how successful you were, and determine whether any changes could have resulted in different outcomes.

Through reflection, teams learn to communicate more effectively and relationships are strengthened. Ultimately, teams that are regularly debrief, perform more successfully.

Here are three simple methods for reflection-on-action that can help your team tackle tough problems:

What Happened? So What? Now What?

In this method for reflection-on-action, groups progressively reflect on a shared experience. First, start by collecting facts about what happened. Although this part of the debriefing is fact-based, you might start to hear varying accounts.

  •     What happened during the work?
  •     What did your team do during the exercise?
  •     What about the process stands out?
  •     What did you hear?
  •     What did you notice?

Next, make sense of the facts by asking what you learned about yourself and others from the activity.

  •     So what does it all mean?
  •     So what have you learned from it?
  •     So what is the key message?
  •     So what is your take on the events?
  •     So what is the meaning of all of this for you?

Finally, discuss what actions should be taken and how you can transfer what you learned to the workplace.

  •     Now what will happen?
  •     Now what will you do?
  •     Now what are the next steps to put into action?
  •     Now what are you ready to commit to doing?
  •     Now what are going to do that could make a difference?


The Inner Game of Work

This method is based on the work by W. Tim Gallwey. In his book The Inner Game of Work: Focus, Learning, Pleasure, and Mobility in the Workplace, Gallwey discusses a simple process for learning from experience. First, before a project or a work experience begins, set learning goals, or what Gallwey calls a “learning brief.”

This simply reminds everyone on the team that you can be learning during the work experience. Then, after the project is complete, have a debriefing conversation to reflect on what you observed during the work experience and to allow for insights, new questions, and possible next steps. Some helpful questions to consider:

  •     What worked?
  •     What didn’t work?
  •     What was in your mind as you started?
  •     What do you need to do now?
  •     What was happening for you when…?

The Action Learning Cycle

Action learning, a concept developed by Reg Revans, is an approach to solving problems that involves taking action and reflecting upon the results. Using this style of reflection, you start with small cycles of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting.

The action and the learning are integrated—action > learning > action— which can help those involved learn and improve in real time as the work progresses. The questions for critical reflection in the action learning cycle are:

  •     What is happening?
  •     What ought to be happening?
  •     What do we need to do to make it happen?

These helpful models of reflective practice sequence questions for learning teams during a debriefing. Although it might take time for a team to adopt this technique of reflective practice, it will ultimately save you time and energy, as well as producing better outcomes over time.

Looking for ways to take your leadership to next level? Consider a course in leadership development.