The Three Big Debrief Questions

Almost everyone recognizes that feedback is critical for growth. The problem is that while most people love the concept in theory, they hate it in reality. Bosses hate to provide it and team members hate to receive it. That hatred can be well deserved if feedback isn’t delivered thoughtfully and consistently through a repeatable process. That’s where the fighter pilot debrief comes to the rescue.   

Fighter pilots have a saying: the learning occurs in the debrief. 

On its face, this saying is counterintuitive because it suggests that fighter pilots become more proficient at our craft not from practicing it in the air, but from talking about it in the past tense after we’re back on the ground in the debriefing room.  

The fact is, the only way to efficiently improve a skill, whether it’s flying jets, closing sales, hitting baseballs, or anything else, is to look back on the execution of that skill as objectively as possible in order to figure out what worked and what didn’t and then providing feedback to the team. Being able to derive the correct lessons learned after the fact largely, if not solely, determines how much you will grow and improve in the future. 

What this means to you as a boss, a coach or even a solo entrepreneur, is that you need to possess debriefing skills if you’re going to be successful going forward, especially as you add more people and complexity to your business. Not to possess debriefing skills dooms you to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Team members become frustrated when they don’t know what they need to do to improve or if, in their view, they’re being unfairly berated. You as the boss become frustrated when you feel like you have to do everything because none of your people seem to know what to do. 

A fighter pilot debriefing is a time-tested process designed to systematically provide feedback by reconstructing what happened, focusing in on the key behaviors that affected execution and then providing solutions to help improve performance the next time. 

Whole books can be written on the finer points of running a good debrief, but focusing on the following three questions will get you off to a good start:

1. Did We Execute the Plan as We Intended? The “plan” can be a marketing campaign, a football game, a 4-ship defensive counterair mission or anything in between. It’s a simple yes or no question, but it’s a crucial one because long term success hinges on being able to consistently execute and improve upon a solid plan of action. If you can’t do the things you say you’re going to do, you’re not going to be successful.  

If the answer is “yes,” move to the next question.  

If the answer is “no,” you have to dive deeper to figure out the reason. Most of the time, “no” answers to this first question mean one of two things: 1) Members of the team failed in their individual tasks due to a lack of skill (or will, but that’s a whole different issue) 2) The leader of the team failed to properly explain the plan so that team members understood their roles OR he failed to provide proper training to the team so that they possessed the requisite skills to perform their roles. In either case, the onus is usually on leadership (you) to determine a solution to fix the problem for next time—improve training, communicate more effectively or put people in roles that better fit their strengths.

2. Did the Plan Allow Us to Achieve Our Objectives? First of all, this question presupposes that the plan was designed with measurable, realistic objectives in mind. Those objectives could be as simple as “improve sales 5% over last year,” or as complicated as “finish the office renovation project under budget and on the original timeline.” Ultimately, you should define success prior to the mission so that you know what success (and failure) looks like before you even get started. 

If the answer is “yes,” the plan allowed you to meet your objectives, move on to the next question.

If you executed your plan, but it still failed to deliver results, then your feedback needs to be aimed toward making your strategy and tactics more effective as opposed to focusing on individuals’ performance.  

3. Did We Get Lucky? If you answer the first two questions in the affirmative, it would seem as though the debrief should be over. After all, you executed the plan as briefed and it produced results that satisfied your objectives. That feels pretty successful, but it definitely doesn’t mean you’re finished debriefing.  

The last question recognizes that a team can only control its own performance and that the other guy always gets a vote. Sometimes, the competition makes a mistake so egregious that your team winds up with a positive result even though it botched its execution or it went in with a flawed gameplan. Accepting a “win” at face value even though you backed into it due to blind luck usually means missing out on a chance for improvement. You’re likely to learn a hard lesson the next time when you’re up against a more competent adversary.  

Did we do what we said we were going to do? 

Did it work? 

Did we get lucky? 

Providing feedback through these three questions will go a long way toward putting your team on a steadily improving path. 

You might not even hate the process. 





Jeffrey OrrComment