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The Morning After: What We Can Learn from Sports Teams and the Military

Debriefings (AKA after-action reviews) are great ways to increase the performance of your team. The military and sports teams know this – yet many organizations have yet to learn or perfect this technique. Instead of learning, they plow through to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, repeating the same mistakes, working with the same inefficiencies and experiencing the same frustrations.

The idea is simple: at a designated time, circle up the team members (and customers too, if you are brave) that have been working on a project or initiative and hold an open and frank dialogue about what is working, what is not and what you have learned.

As you gather, remind your team of the purpose of the session, which is to learn and to get better. Then set some ground rules. Some that you might consider include:

  • No subject is off limits.
  • Our goal is to get better, not to lay blame.
  • Discuss what went well and what did not.
  • Everyone has a voice.

It is helpful to assign a note taker or scribe. That role can be rotated so that it is not a burden to one person. This role is to take notes, record them and distribute them to all participants.

To begin, have a few prepared questions. These are typically open-ended questions that spur discussion. They can be as simple as:

  • What did we do especially well?
  • What made that happen?
  • What do we want to improve in the future?
  • What will it take to do that?

You’ll want to leave some time for other comments or questions. A great way to set this up is to ask,  “What have we not discussed that we really need to?”

As you lead the debriefing, model the way by sharing candidly and non-judgmentally. You can listen carefully and ask follow-up questions. You can be curious and not defensive. Finally, you will want to thank others for insights and perspectives.

To end your debriefing, summarize what was shared. Most likely there will be action items, so ensure that the scribe knows what they are, who is responsible for completing them, and when they are due.

As you repeat these on a regular basis, you’ll find that your team begins to open up with each successive debriefing session. Your ultimate goal is a frank and candid conversation in which your team aims for a very high bar, and is willing to challenge and hold each other accountable to ever-increasing levels of performance. That is the true sign that they have learned how to get better as a team and individually.

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