The Three Big Debriefing Mistakes

When providing feedback to another human being, there are lots of opportunities for missteps, especially when the feedback isn’t good news. Nobody loves hearing about how they screwed something up, even people who are totally on board with the idea of growth through learning from their mistakes. In a perfect world, we’d all rather receive feedback telling us how talented, skilled and handsome we are (smart, too). In the real world, however, there’s a lot more to be learned from failure than from success. In order to maximize your team’s growth, you have to be able to navigate the interpersonal landmines that come with debriefing less-than-optimal performance. 

As I argue here, to get to the point where you’re deftly delivering thoughtful and useful feedback to your people, you have to build a debriefing structure built on the foundation of three questions: 

1. Did we execute the plan? 

2. Did the plan work to achieve our objectives?

3. Did we get lucky?

If those are the three pillars, it stands to reason that there would be three opposite pitfalls:

Not Debriefing at All: If you weren’t raised in a culture similar to that of fighter pilots, you might find that the idea of debriefing is so uncomfortable that it’s easier to simply ignore it altogether. In fact, based on my informal observations, when it comes to delivering feedback most people in most industries favor the Not Debriefing at All approach, at least until things get so bad that the pain of impending failure outweighs the discomfort of having to talk about how things are going. 

In the No Debrief world, an organization never properly correlates the relationship between execution and results. They might notice, if not deal with, obvious things like criminal behavior or natural disasters, but the subtleties of the plan and whether or not it actually works might never even be brought up. Over time, vestiges of previous owners, managers, and employees pile up to the point that the organization spends half its time filling out TPS Reports, but not a single soul knows why. If you’ve ever asked the question “Why do we do X?” and the reply is “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” you’ve seen exactly what I’m talking about. 

 Debriefing ensures that your team focuses their efforts on executing plans that produce desired results, not wasting their time on busy work created by a manager who left the organization ten years ago. 

 Airing of Grievances: A debrief consists of performance feedback for the whole team, from the junior employee all the way up to the big boss. What it is NOT is an airing of grievances in which the boss walks in, dumps all over her employees and then maybe--or maybe not--tells them what they should do in the future to avoid further brow beatings in the guise of “feedback sessions.” 

By using the first two foundational questions, you can avoid the temptation to use a debrief as a tool to punish folks whose biggest sin is that they failed to read your mind to decipher what it is you want them to do. Objectives and a plan designed specifically to achieve them provides structure so that the debrief becomes a platform for the team to compare what they did to what was expected of them. Instead of you standing in front of the crowd pointing out mistakes, it allows you to ask them how it went and then let them riff on their actual performance versus a well-defined perfect performance. In this scenario, folks will often critique themselves, absolving you from having to bear bad news. Instead of a top-down berating, it’s a discussion based on an objective standard, not the boss’s feelings that day.

Grading Performance on Outcomes, not Execution: A win is a win. In the short term, that’s good enough regardless of how it unfolded. Winning ugly is still winning. However, your aim isn’t short-term wins. You want to play the long game and continue winning well into the future--and winning bigger and bigger as you go to boot. In order to do that, you have to derive the correct lessons learned from successful outcomes which is much, much harder than figuring out what went wrong with an unsuccessful campaign. 

Winning doesn’t usually drive people into fits of deep introspection. Rather, it drives people to pop corks and pour champagne. Taking a deep dive into an evaluation of performance might not be the most comfortable thing to do after a loss, but at least most people recognize that it’s a good idea. 

The problem with the win-is-a-win mindset is that you can only control and thus improve your own performance. If your short-term wins are due to external factors that you can’t control—luck, bull market, mistakes by the competition—and you fail to recognize it, you won’t debrief effectively and you won’t grow. When your luck runs out, the market inevitably turns or your competitor gets his act together, you won’t be ready for it. On the other hand, if you’re constantly striving to improve your own execution, you’ll thrive when you have the wind at your back AND you’ll still win when those winds turn into headwinds.

Jeffrey OrrComment