The classic debrief follows the four-question after action review (AAR) methodology pioneered by the US military: What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Why? What did we learn for next time? Over time this has been adapted by other industries.
Another common methodology asks: What worked? What didn’t? What should we do next time? Our clients also put their own spin on these questions. A question asked by some of our clients is: “What did we learn from this project that we could apply to other clients or sectors?” This question reveals business development opportunities.
Ideally, everyone involved in the project or matter should be involved as a participant, including the responsible partner. Additionally, you need someone independent of the matter or project to facilitate and drive the process. Ideally, this is someone within the firm with credibility and without fear.
A debrief will be applicable to some projects but not others. There are two considerations:
What types of projects should trigger an after action review? These may be projects that exceed a minimum fee value, involve more than one group within the firm, contain a novel element or contain a ‘red flag’ (where the team leader’s experience suggests that there may be a problem or challenge emerging).
At what stage of a project should debriefs be deployed? Options include at the end of a project (after action review), during a project (mid action review, sometimes done at defined milestones), or before a project (before action review).
There are some obvious reasons why only 20% of firms do routine debriefs:
Many professionals are time poor and reflexively move from one project or matter to the next. Opportunities to learn and even celebrate are missed.
Some senior professionals prefer not to have their mistakes aired.
Hourly billing doesn’t pay for debriefs (even though it should, but that’s another discussion). Professional firms without hourly billing, such as consulting firms, are much more likely to embrace debriefs.
Many professionals still don’t see their work as project-based, despite the march of project management on the professions.
Leading thinkers in the professions have consistently called for debriefs or after action reviews (AARs). In the 1990s, David Maister called AARs “the essence of personal growth”. In the 2000s, Ron Baker declared AARs the “best learning method ever devised” (he’s qualified that in a podcast with us: second to the book). In the 2010s, Heidi Gardner said of AARs: “As a firm leader, you should model this behaviour, and hold your partners accountable for doing so.” Here’s our view: there an enormous opportunity for your firm to be known to your clients for your relentless commitment to debriefs as a tool for continuous improvement and innovation.
In three ways:
Establish clear business rules around when to have them, how to structure them, participant roles, and what happens with the ideas discerned. If you need help with this contact us for a complimentary copy of our Debrief Business Rules.
Start with a practice group pilot. For some groups, such as transactional groups, debriefs make the most sense (your clients will be doing them too). Create a positive experience and then watch people become vocal advocates because debriefs are enjoyable, empowering and exciting.
Find a dedicated person who takes administrative control of the process. That could be a KM / L&D / HR / BD professional or someone else – but someone with credibility and capability. This person needs to drive the process and make engagement as simple as possible for everyone else. This last idea is the secret to getting debriefs to work in your firm.