Team Effectiveness

Team Debriefs Lead to Better Results

Carolynne Wintrip, Learning and Team Effectiveness Specialist

April 10, 2018

Team debriefs are a quick and powerful way for teams to improve their performance. Research shows that teams that do regular debriefs outperform those that don’t by 20-25%.

Most organizations rely on teams to achieve important business goals. You likely spend at least part of your day collaborating with others. Despite the importance of teamwork, many teams need to improve. In a Human Capital Institute survey, 92% of respondents said teams were important for their organization’s success, yet only 23% thought their teams were effective.

In my work with organizations I help teams understand and discuss their current strengths and gaps, so they can identify ways to improve. We use a debrief process that leads to action and change. Here are a few tips you can use to help your teams get better results.

“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”

— Steve Jobs

What is a team debrief?

It’s a planned team discussion designed to help figure out what’s working well and what should be changed or improved. Adding structure to team debriefs helps make sure everyone’s voice is heard. A debrief doesn’t have to be time-consuming – you can do it in less than 20 minutes! To get the most from a debrief, focus on 3-5 questions that invite different perspectives on what is going well and what might be getting in the way of success.

When should your team debrief?

The best timing for when to debrief depends on the work of your team and the pace of your business. Choose a debrief rhythm that makes sense for you. Remember, every lesson your team learns and applies gets you working more effectively, so it’s important to create the team debrief habit.

Fast-paced project teams with high interdependence and tight deadlines might need to debrief as often as once a week. Project Teams should also debrief whenever a significant milestone or goal has been met. Design and development teams often work in sprints: these teams should debrief at the end of each sprint to capture and apply ‘lessons learned’. Patient care or customer service teams can debrief quickly at the end of each shift – this creates the positive habit of acknowledging each others’ contributions and continuous learning.  Departmental or cross-functional teams with less interdependence, a monthly or quarterly rhythm makes more sense. Leadership Teams should debrief quarterly or at least twice a year.

When done at the right interval, debriefs don’t have to take a lot of time, so it’s best to do them often and keep them short and focused. For example, some teams have a short (5-10 minute) debrief at the end of each meeting.

How do you plan and conduct an effective team debrief?

  1. Talk to your team about the purpose of debriefs. I’d describe it as a way to step back from the day-to-day to look for patterns, acknowledge what’s working and capture learning that can help us get even better. It’s important to create a safe space where people feel comfortable expressing their ideas in a way that supports continuous learning.
  2. Decide on the focus questions and how much time you’ll need. It’s best to choose 3-5 questions (see some examples below). Another option is to use the simple STOP – START – CONTINUE method. Schedule the debrief meeting for a time when everyone on the team can be available.
  3. Send out the questions in advance. Some people like to think privately about their ideas ahead of time rather than being put on the spot. Sending the questions out ahead helps to make sure everyone contributes.  
  4. Consider a pre-survey approach. This is optional and is very helpful for more formal debriefs. This type of formal debrief can be very rich and it’s often good to use a facilitator who isn’t on the team so that everyone can contribute fully. This type of formal debrief is usually done less frequently. You can use tools like the Team Diagnostic or Debrief Now.  You can even customize a short survey on SurveyMonkey or other online survey tools and use this to gather input prior to the meeting.
  5. Conduct the debrief using a designated facilitator. The facilitator’s role is to introduce the debrief. They will help create a climate of safety, respect and learning, and make sure everyone participates. He or she will also keep time and make sure the discussion leads to action.
  6. Decide on actions and next steps. Every debrief should end with a summary of what the team will test or change as a result of the discussion. Remember, team debriefs are intended to help the team improve performance so deciding on actions is key!  In addition to deciding on team actions, ask each individual on the team to come up with at least one commitment for what they will do differently to support the team’s success. Sharing this commitment helps keep people accountable.

Here are some questions you could try at your team debriefs:

  • When have we been at our best as a team, and what did we do that contributed to that?
  • What do we need to do more of?
  • Which of our processes could be adjusted for better results? How?
  • What could we stop doing without compromising quality or results?
  • What’s been getting in our way? How can we address it?
  • What could improve our communication between meetings?
  • For end of meeting debriefs: How effective was this meeting? What did we do well? What took us off track? What could we do differently to make the best use of our time together?

So, it’s time to schedule a team debrief. Good luck and get ready to accelerate your team’s results.

I help leaders, teams and organizations collaborate and communicate more effectively. I’d love to hear about your experience with or questions about debriefs. You can get in touch at carolynne@luminuslearning.com or meet me on Twitter!