Any chance this sounds familiar? Your team comes together once, maybe twice a year in the form of a “retreat” to build relationships and have fun so that everyone will work together better. At these retreats you discuss work, learn something new, eat (good, hopefully) food, but then go back to working the same way everyone did before the retreat. Nothing changed.
If it sounds familiar, you are not alone. One of the greatest myths about teamwork is that fostering it happens outside of the work itself. Meaning, an event must be held to improve teamwork and it is done with games, “trust falls”, or behavioral assessments. Sometimes referred to as “team-building” or, what I like to call, forced fun.
Don’t get me wrong, those activities are engaging and certainly valuable for the right context, but stand-alone events like those have very little bearing on a team’s day-to-day performance.
What makes a real impact on performance are debriefs or improvement focused dialogue. It is also sometimes called feedback or lessons learned. Regardless of the term used, it is routine and dedicated time to discuss what is going well, what is not, and what can be improved.
The time it takes to do this is worth it. Teams that conduct well-designed debriefs perform an average of 25% better than teams who don’t.
In this post you will learn a variety of techniques and tips to gather feedback effectively and turn it into performance.
What is a debrief?
A debrief or feedback session is just a moment to ask questions and hold discussion after something has been completed. This can take place the last 10 minutes of a meeting or at the conclusion of a project. Ideally, they are routine and expected. The best debriefs take place when everyone is prepared to have the discussion.
Surprise feedback sessions rarely yield valuable results. At minimum, a surprise feedback session will be incomplete as people often identify better ideas after having some time to think. At worst, it creates defensiveness in the people whose work is now being unexpectedly discussed.
The point here is to dedicate time to intentionally discuss successes, failures, missed opportunities, and unexpected wins - and do so in predictable and planned ways.
A schedule lends nicely to this concept so a team might dedicate the last Friday of every month to debrief. I worked on a software implementation team that debriefed at the conclusion of each phase in the project. We called the sessions Lessons Learned. A physician colleague of mine holds daily huddles at 2pm. They meet for no more than 10 minutes. The lessons learned from the morning and early afternoon are applied to evening and overnight.
The timing of the debriefs will be specific to the type of work the team performs.
There are dozens of techniques for drawing feedback from the team. Below are three simple approaches that do not require skilled third party facilitation (though, it is valuable to have.)
The most important factor in gleaning valuable information from the team is to maximize psychological safety. This is creating an environment that ensures participants will not feel punished, rejected, or made fun of for speaking up.
Plus/Delta, a technique from Lean Methodology, is a valuable approach for debriefs. It has a positive, productive tone and focuses on change related improvement. Either remote or in-person, the facilitator shares a blank document or uses flipchart paper split into two sides, like this:
The Plus side reveals what is going well. Delta or the triangle refers to a symbol for change. This means the team offers ideas for change. Depending on the context and size of team, this exercise can take 15 minutes or two hours.
The sessions that take longer should also dive into “near misses” and “sloppy wins”. For instance, I worked on a team that was tasked to implement an organizational policy by a certain date. The policy implementation date was met (Hooray, a win!) but the team did not fully understand the implications of the policy on the organization creating confusion and frustration for managers (sloppy execution.) A Plus/Delta exercise is an opportunity to dive into why the execution was poor and correct it for future work.
Think/Pair/Share is a technique for teams that may have low levels of psychological safety resulting in a lack of people feeling confident to speak up and share feedback. This is also an effective approach if participants did not have a chance to prepare in advance for the debrief. While surprise debriefs are not ideal, they happen.
Think: Assign the feedback questions to participants and give them independent time to think and write down their opinions. This initial quiet time enables introverts to process their thoughts and ideas.
Pair: Split the participants into pairs and provide another round of time for discussion. This will give extroverts the needed time to verbally process their ideas. It also increases engagement in the topic because the duos refine their ideas together.
Share: Open the discussion to the large group for sharing. Because participants have been able to reflect independently and then share with a colleague, they are effectively “warmed up” for large group discussion.
Note: Think/Pair/Share is also ideal for brainstorming and problem-solving. It is not exclusive to debriefs.
Surveys are an effective approach for debriefing. They allow for anonymity when responding though require a resource to create and manage the survey. They can be as simple as a free Google Form (though a Google account is required) or as robust as a commercial tool like Debrief Now. Using Polling in virtual meeting platforms is quick and easy too.
Surveys with closed-ended questions or forced multiple choice are best for team debriefs. They result in quick, quantitative responses. While the results will not give specific answers, they will point the team in the direction for further exploration and discussion. Here is a quick example:
A leader can then have one-on-one conversations with team members to uncover the specifics behind the responses in the survey. Bottom-line, surveys are built for speed and will require further investigation to reap the benefits of the debrief.
Regardless of the technique used for debriefs, there are some important factors to consider:
Facilitator of the debrief – Ideally, the facilitator of the debriefs is a neutral party but that is not always possible. Often, the leader of the team facilitates. If so, then the leader should offer their opinions last. This opens the team up to evaluate itself which is less threatening than hearing it from the leader.
Embrace silence – Inevitably, people will not speak and that is ok. Allow the quiet to provide the proverbial space for feedback.
Plan for action – If a team is going to dedicate valuable time to sharing feedback, there needs to be a plan for acting on the feedback. This plan is identified before the feedback is gathered to reassure the team that their opinions are valued. If it ends up that no action will be taken, communicate that and the reason for it to the team. Maintaining transparency is best.
Ground rules – Setting expectations for the debriefs is important. Some basic ground rules include:
Avoid blame – What went right/wrong? (Not who.)
Offer solutions or ideas for improvement. Criticism alone is unhelpful.
One person shares at a time; respect and listen to each other’s perspectives
Debriefs are a mission critical aspect of team performance. Once a rhythm is created and the team experiences the value of efficient and productive feedback, it will start to feel like a natural activity. Anyone can begin employing debriefs. Practice the concept for any meeting you personally lead or even foster the conversations after a family vacation. The concept applies just as much at home as it does at work.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.