The Power of Nameless and Rankless Debriefing

By Jim Murphy

Advertising executives on Madison Avenue often use an interesting document called a Call Report. A Call Report (or a Conference Report) is the official summary of an important meeting between a client and the agency, and it details the next steps that have to be taken, as well as the various approvals and changes that were agreed to in the meeting. I say it’s interesting because it’s a fairly hard thing to write. Most client-agency meetings are attended by people from different disciplines - the media department, the research department, the creative department, the production department, and so on. Now, because the media people talk a cost-per-thousand language that would put the creative group to sleep, and the research department talks gibberish, the Call Report takes a deft hand and a little political sensitivity.

The Call Report is an outstanding way to summarize a meeting. You have the minutes of the meeting, some important notes, key decisions recorded, and a roadmap of what to do next. It’s all there in black-and-white. But step back. What’s really going on here? It may be an excellent way to summarize a meeting, but by what process does a Call Report get created? More to the point - how do you end a meeting? Do you have someone issue a Call Report, or do you end a meeting by having an equally important meeting called a Debrief.

Devices like Call Reports can easily lull a company into a false sense of accomplishment. In every meeting there are treacherous currents, shifting moods, moments when things come perilously close to going wrong, if not crashing altogether. In this day and age you can’t improve execution by saying “mission accomplished”. You need to examine the meeting itself and make certain you learn as much from what did or did not happen as you do from the outcomes. Tell me how that mission was accomplished. Tell me where things started to break down and what the team did to correct it. Have you ever watched a duck on a pond? They look calm and serene, don’t they? Well, I can tell you now...underneath the water those little feet are paddling furiously. Tell me what’s going on under the surface. Debrief meetings. Get into what went on, who did what, how the process worked. Trust me...I’ve never attended a Debrief that didn’t uncover a correctable mistake or identify a moment when someone on the team stepped over a dollar to pick up a dime.

The STEALTH Debrief: One of the most powerful tools the fighter pilot community has given corporate America is called the Debrief. A Debrief takes place immediately after an important meeting and is attended by all of those who attended the original meeting. It is designed to tap into the individual perspectives of the team members and examine the meeting from every possible angle, ultimately reaching group consensus on the Lessons Learned. Conducted properly, it accelerates the learning experiences of the company and provides a valuable feedback loop that continuously improves corporate execution.

Set Time. A Fighter Pilot Debrief is a disciplined event. Before we even fly the Mission, we determine the location, start time, and end time of the Debrief. In a squadron or in business, the only way Debriefing works is to embrace this high standard of discipline.

Tone. A Fighter Pilot Debrief is “Nameless and Rankless”. This means anyone can bring up any issue without fear of reprimand. The Debrief leader first sets the Tone by admitting his or her mistakes and then opening himself up to the criticism of the rest of the team. This creates the kind of open communication that gets to the important issues of the Mission and avoids the blame game so common in organizations today.

Execution Versus Objectives. Now that the team is communicating openly, it’s time to dive into the Execution of the Mission. Simply put - how did the team’s actual Execution compare to their objective?

Analyze Execution. In the previous step, we discussed the profit and loss of the Mission - the successes as well as the failures. In this step, we determine the direct Cause of the profits and losses - “How it happened”. We then dive deeper to determine their Root Causes - “Why it happened”.

Lessons Learned. This is where we take the recurring Root Causes from the previous step and turn them into critical Lessons Learned that can be used in future mission planning. The Lessons Learned from the Mission provide vital feedback to senior leaders who are monitoring the Execution of corporate strategy.

Transfer Lessons Learned. This is how the Debrief accelerates the experience of the entire organization. As Fighter Pilots, we want our learning experiences transferred throughout our organization as quickly as possible to save others from the mistakes that could cost them their life. For this reason, we capture the results of our Debrief (our Lessons Learned) in a database that will then be referenced by Fighter Pilots throughout our organization as they plan tomorrow’s Mission.

High Note. We always end a Debrief on a high note. After dissecting the Mission, admitting errors and underscoring successes, we end the Debrief with something positive. Regardless of the Mission outcome, it is important to keep morale high going forward.

Read other articles and learn more about Jim “Murph” Murphy.

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