Thriving Teams #4: Team Debriefs

Watching footage of post-game team talks by football managers always fascinated me, on the rare occasions when the cameras were allowed into the changing room. Sometimes it was dominated by cheering and roaring champagne as a team progressed to the next round of a cup; other times, a Neil Warnock-esque manager would be snarling and swearing at his players for another turgid performance. In my head, this was the post-game analysis. A few words, a bit of pointing. Name and shame. Move on to the next game.

It was only when I began watching modern-day sports documentaries, tracking NFL teams in the states, or Premier League teams in England, that I saw the improved version. Managers and coaching staff poring over video analysis, picking out positives, finding ways to improve, and then bringing the players in to study in both classroom sessions and then application out on the training pitch. The previous game’s lessons were vital to the team’s learning and improvement.

I’m sure that some of these debriefs weren’t evidence-informed or conducive to genuine team gains, but I’m always envious of the time and facilities they have, nonetheless. And, anyhow, Doug Lemov and Alistair Smith are two educators who have made huge impact on learning in elite sports, so that world is catching up; but, I digress.

In my recent pursuit of thriving teams, certain factors continue to appear in the research I have read. I’ve covered some already: the importance of deliberate team composition, purpose, goal setting, and psychological safety. But this blog post is dedicated to a feature of high-performing teams that I didn’t expect to appear as regularly as it does in research: conducting team debriefs.

Aside from my reference to post-game analysis or changing-room reaction, team debriefs are also known as critiques, after-action reviews, huddles, hot-washes, post mortems, and I’m sure the list goes on; I’ll settle for debriefs, a type of work meeting in which teams discuss, interpret, and learn from recent events during which they collaborated (Allen, et al 2018). Sundheim (2015) defines debriefing as a ‘structured learning process designed to continuously evolve plans while they’re being executed’, with the emphasis that the project or phase of work should be ongoing when the debriefs occur.

There’s a good chance you regularly engage in evaluation of an event, project, process, or meeting / CPD session. We all like to evaluate what we do. Don’t we? The truth is, it can be easier to say than do. Inviting feedback and evaluating our processes can be uncomfortable, humbling, and time consuming. I’d be surprised if most teams regularly, systematically, engaged in purposeful team debriefs, and I’d love to hear from those who do.

And yet, according to a recent meta-analysis, teams who engage in debriefs outperform teams that do not. Well-conducted debriefs can improve team effectiveness by 25% (Tannenbaum & Cerasoli, 2013), as they help teams and individuals to learn, communicate, and improve performance.

How to conduct effective team debriefs

So, now that we know what debriefs are, and how they are potentially of benefit to your team, let’s explore how to conduct them for full effect.

Team debriefs look very different across organisations, and even within some. Every workplace will have its own reason for the debrief: at a hospital, it might aim to increase patient safety, while a fire brigade may need to review how they can be more efficient when tackling a dangerous situation or environment.

Some of the purposes of team debriefs might be:  information sharing, performance management, problem solving, decision making, enhancing group identity, experiential learning, minimizing accidents, identifying hazards, taking corrective action, establishing psychological safety, building collegiality, and others as necessary (Allen et al 2018).

Leading a successful team is a complex business, and, as you’d expect, there are common traps for debriefs to fall into. At the heart of a debrief should be honesty and genuine reflection. An evaluative meeting could potentially become a breeding ground for shifting of blame, rewritten memories or accounts of what happened, or a battle of egos. Essentially, ineffective debriefs are problematic because they reinforce a narrative of the event that perhaps might not be accurate, may diffuse responsibility for the problems contained therein, and may ultimately lead to groupthink, i.e., the team adopting a shared, homogenous view (Scott et al., 2015). However, even while we are learning the ropes, it is worth persevering: several meta-analyses evaluated the effectiveness of debriefs, and they have all concluded that having a debrief results in improved learning and team performance compared with not having debriefs.

As discussed by Allen et al (2018) in their wonderful paper on Team Debriefs, at the U.S. Army’s Combat Training Center, debriefs are run according to the following pattern:

 1. Reviews what the unit intended to accomplish, including the overall mission and commander’s intent.

2. Establishes the group understood truth of what actually happened (e.g., review moment-bymoment events on the battlefield to ensure accurate sensemaking). This one is vital!

3. Explores the causes of the results, good or bad, and may focus on one or a few key issues.

4. Provides time for the unit to reflect on what it should learn from the review and how to sustain effective future operations.

 5. Concludes with a prospective look at the next day’s mission and what issues may arise.

Beyond this individual setting, a review by Salas, Klein, and colleagues (2008) revealed 12 evidence-based practices for effective debriefing in medical teams, though the list is transferable for all debriefing activity:

1. Debriefs must be diagnostic (i.e., identify specific ways to improve work).

2. Ensure that the organisation creates a supportive learning environment for debriefs.

3. Encourage team leaders/members to be attentive during performance regarding what they may want to discuss later (i.e., work tasks to be debriefed).

 4. Educate team leaders on the science of leading team debriefs (i.e., facilitation processes).

5. Ensure that team members feel comfortable in debriefs (e.g., psychological safety).

6. Focus on few critical performance issues during the debrief (i.e., less is more).

7. Describe specific teamwork interactions and processes involved in the team performance.

8. Support feedback with objective data.

9. Provide outcome feedback later (i.e., not during the debrief) and less frequently than process feedback.

10. Provide both individual and team-orientated feedback at appropriate times.

11. Shorten time delay between task performance and debriefing.

12. Record conclusions made and goals set during the debrief and follow-up

For a more concise, and precise, method of what to ask your team during the debriefing, Sundheim (2015) provides four key questions:

  • What were we trying to accomplish?
  • Where did we hit (or miss) our objectives?
  • What caused our results?
  • What should we start, stop, or continue doing?

Leaders and facilitators have an important role in establishing the team climate in which effective debriefs can occur. Team leaders and facilitators should be non-judgmental, avoid blame, focus on positives as well as negatives, and allow team members to reflect, as opposed to simply providing them with the information (Kolbe et al., 2015). In addition, team leaders and facilitators should encourage an open discussion and, potentially conflict, as long as it is constructive and in a trusting team environment.

Leading Team Debriefs in schools

The success of team debriefs in the military, hospitals, and emergency services suggests that even when teams are time poor, they should make time to reflect and evaluate. I could write a book about how different teams within schools might go about conducting debriefs, based on their specific functions and meeting habits. However, for now I will try to stay on a more generic footing.

Here are some of my thoughts for making these work in schools, based on my own reflections and experiences as a school-based team leader:

  • Build in the time: what you prioritise in a meeting is a subjective choice. Some items are immediately pressing, such as imminent deadlines or decisions; others are developmental, with their benefits perhaps being less tangible, at first. A team debrief, properly introduced and conducted, will gain buy in and improve performance. It’s not looking backwards, it’s feeding forward. So prioritise this time in meetings – other things could be taken care of in an email. This can’t.
  • Start with why: schools move at a fast pace, no two days are the same, and events are quickly forgotten (must be the thousands of daily decisions).To gain team buy in, it helps to explain why you are reviewing a certain process. How will it benefit the children? Or your aims as a team? How will you use this learning for next time? Make it tangible, start with why.
  • Reflect on your learning: after a team debrief, it’s a good idea to capitalise on the endeavour and progress by celebrating future successes. Every member of your team will arrive at the meeting with something different occupying their mind; an inspiring lesson observation; a confrontational parent; a pile of marking to return to. Celebrating previous debriefs, and the impact they have had on something you have achieved as a team, is a great way to capitalise on the good work done by the group.
  • Codify your findings: over the course of a team’s life, you could conduct hundreds of team debriefs. Some of these will discover similar areas to improve. It’s important that during these meetings, notes are made and recorded, so that lessons can be learned and reviewed in the future. This method may also help you spot patterns, and codify some of the best ways that your team works and improves.
  • Bring warmth, build belonging: your team will enjoy or endure a debrief based on how you as a leader convey your feelings towards it. Just like everything else, your smile, energy, enthusiasm and attitude to receiving feedback of any kind, will be infectious for your team. Feedback and evaluation is a gift, especially in a purposeful, unified team. Members may feel apprehensive, so it’s the leader’s role to make everyone feel included, listened to, and valued.

Put simply, teams that engage in debriefing regularly and effectively enhance their teamwork (Tannenbaum & Cerasoli, 2013), their sense of belonging to the team, and improve overall team performance. In terms of organisational outcomes, a debriefing organisation becomes one that learns and improves more continuously and, ideally, a healthier, more effective, and reliable organisation.

We do such important work for children and our staff. Every day, or week, we conduct hundreds of actions and processes, often becoming habitual in the way we approach our work. A culture of debriefing and evaluating the work of our teams will create purpose, team unity, and increases in team performance, as we review how we work and how we can improve. It may be uncomfortable at first. It may take up some time. But the investment that you will expend is shown to have wide-ranging benefits; this is another step towards a thriving team.

Thank you for reading

Sam

Earlier posts in the Thriving Teams series:

Thriving Teams #1: What is a team

Thriving Teams #2: Purpose and Goals

Thriving Teams #3: Psychological Safety

References

Allen, J. A., Reiter-Palmon, R., Crowe, J., & Scott, C. (2018). Debriefs: Teams learning from doing in context. American Psychologist, 73(4), 504–516. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000246

Kolbe, M., Grande, B., & Spahn, D. R. (2015). Briefing and debriefing during simulation-based training and beyond: Content, structure, attitude and setting. Best Practice & Research Clinical Anaesthesiology, 29, 87–96. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bpa.2015.01.002

Salas, E., Klein, C., King, H., Salisbury, M., Augenstein, J. S., Birnbach, D. J., . . . Upshaw, C. (2008). Debriefing medical teams: 12 evidence[1]based best practices and tips. Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, 34, 518 –527. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1553- 7250(08)34066-5

Scott, C. W., Dunn, A., Williams, E., & Allen, J. (2015). Implementing after action review systems in organizations: Key principles and practical considerations. In J. Allen, N. Lehman-Willenbrock, & S. Rogelberg (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of meeting science (pp. 634 – 660). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/ CBO9781107589735.027

Sundheim, D (2015) Debriefing: A Simple Tool to Help Your Team Tackle Tough Problems. Harvard Business Review online:  https://hbr.org/2015/07/debriefing-a-simple-tool-to-help-your-team-tackle-tough-problems#:~:text=Debriefing%20is%20a%20structured%20learning,or%20changes%20on%20the%20field.

Tannenbaum, S. I., & Cerasoli, C. P. (2013). Do team and individual debriefs enhance performance? A meta-analysis. Human Factors, 55, 231–245. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0018720812448394

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