Competence: debrief the wins and the near-misses

Great leaders and teams learn from every experience — wins, losses, and near-misses.

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For Blue Angels, the post-flight debrief is sacred. Everything else can wait until they analyze their performance after every flight. Their debriefs answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What happened? No one has the complete picture. It takes reflection and input from all the pilots in the air and the support officers on the ground to collect the whole picture, to capture the whole truth. Stay objective and non-judgmental. “Just the facts.” Don’t allow the discussion to get to step-2 prematurely; stay here and ask “What else?” until every participant feels nothing has been missed.
  2. Why did it happen? The good and the bad. Dig below the surface to find root causes. Again, remain objective; avoid making judgements or placing blame. At the Navy Fighter Weapons School (“Topgun”), debriefs of air combat exercises are conducted using the third-person to be objective and minimize personal defensiveness (“At this point, the blue fighter lost sight of the bandit and incorrectly reversed his turn…”).
  3. What will we do differently next time? Reinforce the good; how can we make it even better? Seek to prevent mistakes and poor performance. “If we were to fly this mission again tomorrow, what would we do differently?” Each person enhances trust by accepting responsibility for mistakes or poor performance and committing to improvement. (“Next time, I’ll apply the techniques we discussed today to keep sight of the bandit throughout the training exercise.”).

Now, here’s where the Blue Angels and Topgun and other truly high-performance organizations set themselves apart: they debrief ALL of their missions and projects — not just the failures, but also the successes and near misses.

  • Successes. There are lessons to be learned even when the mission was a success, the deal was won, the roll-out went well. Don’t miss the lessons to build on success and seek to raise the bar even higher. Good enough isn’t.
  • Near-misses. Too often, the response to near-misses is relief, “Whew, we lucked out on that,” and then move on without further reflection. Great Navy squadrons treat near-accidents as if they were real accidents with a careful evaluation and debrief. Even when you dodged a bullet and everything turned out OK, don’t miss the lessons!

Bill Belicheck, head coach of New England Patriots, shares this approach:

In the NFL most teams exaggerate the wins and forget about the losses. Belichick is the same with both. He does an autopsy after each game and understands there is a fine line between winning and losing. The outcome is significant, but the process has to be the same after each game. Mentally, physically, and emotionally. Chess champions keep their emotions in check because they are in deep thought. The same deep thinking should happen after a win or loss.

Be a High-Trust Leader: have the discipline to debrief every project, event, client meeting, etc. to glean the lessons regardless of outcome.

Training Tips:

  • Just do it. When I was giving the “Briefing and Debriefing” lecture at Topgun, I used to say, “The most important thing about a debrief is to have one. There are a million reasons to skip over this critical activity. Don’t. Make it a habit and as you gain experience the debriefs will get better and better.”
  • Prepare for the debrief during planning. Include the debrief in your schedule and agenda. Make everyone aware when and where it will be held, and what you expect each person to bring to the meeting. This will help them pay attention and take notes throughout.
  • Debrief yourself first. What mistakes did you make? What could you have done better? What did you learn? In Blue Angels debriefs, the flight leader sets the example and is transparent about his performance and open to constructive feedback.
  • Everyone participates and accepts responsibility for their performance. Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Don’t let one or two people dominate the discussion, including you.
  • Be disciplined and deliberate. Step through each of the three questions carefully. Don’t rush to the next one until there is agreement that everything has been covered.
  • Manage the culture. Ensure all inputs all valued. If there are disagreements and emotions flare, it’s OK for the discussion to be loud and passionate. Just don’t allow it to get personal.
  • Take Action. Each person should take at least one specific action to improve the team’s performance next time.