The Art of the Debrief: Thriving on Self-Improvement and Brutally Honest Feedback
What the world of aviation can teach us about valuing self-reflection over achievement and self-aggrandizement in the workplace.
Our culture is obsessed with crashes. In the past couple of months alone, I've had friends recommend at least three different TV series centered around high-profile fallen entrepreneurs. These shows document their meteoric rise to fame, then spotlight all of the flaws and wrong turns that eventually led them to fail.
As an entrepreneur, having every little life event and business decision scrutinized on the big screen (or worse, in court) sounds like a nightmare. But as a pilot, I don't find this postmortem strange at all. In aviation, having every mistake — big or small — picked apart is not only routine; it's part of the job. A pilot who can't own up to and learn from their mistakes is bound to fail.
When it comes to business, though, far too many companies prioritize achievement and self-aggrandizement over learning and self-reflection. Problems are allowed to pile up, and people wait until things have taken a nosedive to finally confront reality.
But what if we changed the status quo? Would fewer startups fail if businesspeople received frequent and brutally honest criticism like pilots do? What would happen if entrepreneurs started admitting their mistakes in real-time?
Debriefing: Build trust, continuous learning and feedback loops
In aviation, moments of reckoning are regularly scheduled. Mistakes are quickly caught, recorded and scrutinized. There's an arsenal of tools to keep pilots accountable and learning from every mishap — recurrent training, reports, debriefings and simulators. Of these, debriefings are the most important.
How do debriefings work? They're essentially performance reviews that happen immediately after a flight or mission. Pilots, astronauts and other professionals employ them for teaching, learning, benchmarking progress and ensuring procedures are working as intended.
The format and frequency of debriefings will vary depending on the setting. But the concept remains the same: Do a deep dive into what went right, what went wrong and how to improve in the future. Any errors are subjected to a root cause analysis to dissect what happened, identify contributing factors and see how mistakes can be prevented moving forward. Those involved are expected to show no judgment or pride and give zero excuses. The priority is to learn.
Debriefing is the other side of intense preparation. You can't train obsessively only to pack up and leave after executing, failing to analyze whether or not your performance was up to par. Organizations with strong debriefing cultures, like the U.S. Air Force and NASA, thrive on the brutally honest feedback handed out during these reviews. This process helps build self-awareness, reduce error rates and instill a culture of continuous learning and development.
The best part? You can adapt debriefing for nearly every line of work. When transitioning into the business world, many retired military pilots bring the art of debriefing with them. And other professionals, such as surgeons and engineers, have reaped huge benefits after adopting this practice.
Structuring debriefings: Maximize learning opportunities
How you incorporate debriefings will vary depending on your current situation and long-term goals. Regardless, the purpose should always be to build accountability and nurture a growth mindset. Here's a basic debriefing structure to help you get started:
Establish a schedule: Regularity is key to ensuring effective debriefings. By establishing continuous feedback loops and accountability, you can catch and correct errors early. Plus, events will still be fresh in everyone's minds when they're discussed.
Set an agenda: Choose the most important events you want to discuss. Prioritize anything that did not go according to plan — that's where the biggest lessons are. But don't hesitate to acknowledge successes, since those offer valuable knowledge as well.
Start with the 4 Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Answer these four questions to develop an objective snapshot of each point discussed.
Dive into the "why:" Mistakes and other problems get the "why" treatment. Performing a root cause analysis will help you identify precisely where problems originated. This way, you can address the sources and avoid them in the future.
Document your findings: Codifying the lessons learned into procedures and guidelines will make them accessible to everyone and promote improved performance.
Developing a debriefing culture: Empower people to come clean
The key to successful debriefings is creating a culture focused on learning and self-reflection for everyone, regardless of their position. People need to feel comfortable speaking up, owning up and holding others, as well as themselves, accountable. The attitude that participants bring into a debriefing will ultimately determine whether the exercise is useful or not. Everyone should remember to:
Learn: This is the primary goal of debriefing. Mistakes provide valuable lessons, so confront them head-on.
Don't make it personal: When reviewing an event, focus on the actions and not the individual. The point is not to make people look bad — it's to help them improve.
Own your mistakes: Leave pride and excuses at the door. Learn to depersonalize criticism and respond positively to it.
Consider every detail: Mistakes are not always straightforward. Get to the root cause, and learn exactly why things happened.
Commit to improvement: Log the lessons learned, and keep them top of mind moving forward. Use them to self-correct and benchmark your progress.
Building a culture of ownership and self-reflection can be challenging — especially in business, where pride and ruthless competition rule. "It's not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that made them look foolish or incompetent," wrote Colonel Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut and fighter pilot, when describing NASA's debriefing culture. But if the goal is to succeed, casting pride aside in the name of self-improvement may be what sets you apart from competitors and saves you from a messy crash.
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