Leadership Matters: The 5 Most Powerful Debrief Questions

March 2018: Vol 41 No 3
Michael Bungay Stanier
Here’s why they’re important for good coaches to ask.
Businessman presenting diagram drawn on a large notebook to colleagues

Debriefing should be a significant part of any project because, oddly enough, we learn more from an event or project once it’s all over than we do during its execution. And yet, we often finish something and move on without meeting to discuss and reflect on the way things went down.

But there really is value in debriefing—and there’s an art to it, too. You don’t want to gloss over the good or the bad; you want to find out what worked and what didn’t. Moreover, you want to be able to learn from it.

Think about the way a sports coach creates a game plan. Only after watching the team play can the coach see what works and what doesn’t and then create a strategy for the next game. As a manager and coach (albeit of the non-sporting kind), you’re doing the same thing when you debrief. 

Your best bet is to ask a few powerful questions post-project that focus on learning and community building, rather than on measuring success. Don’t set this up for failure by making it a finger-pointing affair; rather, consider it as a way to work on strategy. 

So, let’s take a look at those questions:

  1. What were we trying to do?

    This is when you might repeat the goals of the project and reiterate what you were all trying to achieve. It can be as simple as going over the original plan.
  2. What happened?

    As I’m sure you know, what we plan isn’t always what ends up happening. As Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

    Use this question to find out what actually happened. Sure, you see things one way but, assuming that other people were involved, there are multiple perspectives. This question helps gather the facts of it all—and the opinions too. This can initiate a moment of reflection. Just remember, though, to capture specific results rather than using this question to call out instances when someone might have done something wrong.
  3. What can we learn from this?

    Some learning moments will be obvious: “The registration process took too long; there wasn’t enough signage at the event.” Others will be less specific and require a little more exploration: “Why did we take on this project when it’s on the fringe of our organization’s focus?”

    It’s easy to point to the flaws of a project or event, but it’s more worthwhile to start with what’s been successful and expand from there.

    Knowing what works and then looking for answers about the aspects that are still puzzling will lead you to moments of discovery—learned insights—and help you come up with solutions. Be clear and concise about what still needs improvement.
  4. What should we do differently next time?

    This question is important because it makes the learned insights stick. It puts a thought in your mind that you’ll remember as you embark on the next project and think toward the next debrief. This discussion reminds us of the gathered wisdom we can use moving forward, instead of falling into a pattern of doing things the “usual” way.
  5. Now what?

    Now for the practical stuff. A debrief might lead to actions that need to be taken, and this is where you can decide who should do what. Set up accountability—decide on actions, set up tasks and determine deadlines.

Author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Michael Bungay Stanier is the senior partner and founder of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less good work and more great work. It is best known for its coaching programs, which give busy managers practical tools to coach in 10 minutes or less. Download free chapters of the book here

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