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The Importance of Debriefing and Reflecting

Deborah Swerdlow

The Importance of Debriefing and Reflecting

Sometimes in the social-impact space, we’re moving so quickly and the issues feel so urgent that we are liable to skip an important step in our professional development: debriefing. The problem is that when we don’t stop to debrief and reflect, we risk repeating our mistakes or missing opportunities to improve.

When done right, debriefing isn’t a burden or a waste of time. It’s the final step—and a crucial step—in whatever it is we’re doing.

Below are a few common scenarios where debriefing can make a big difference, sample questions you can use, and tips on how to get the most out of a group debrief.

When to debrief

After a big work project

When you and your colleagues have put a significant amount of time and effort into a project, it would be a shame to skip the debrief. If it’s a recurring project or event, a debrief can provide valuable information to help you improve the next one. And even if the exact same project won’t happen again, you can still glean lessons from that project and apply them to others.

Make sure to include all the perspectives that were involved in the project, from content to logistics and from planning to execution. But that doesn’t mean including every single person who played a role; including a representative from each perspective or area of work will be enough.

After you try something new

In science, in art, and yes, in your career, no one experiments just for the sake of experimenting. The point of trying something new is to learn something, and debriefing will help you uncover the lessons.

You can debrief anything that’s new for you, big or small. For example, try debriefing a new approach to networking, your first informational interview, or a new process you’ve built for one of your recurring job duties.

After a job interview

A job interview can feel hard to debrief because you can’t always ask your interviewers for feedback. But this is one scenario where debriefing matters the most because repeating mistakes can really cost you.

If you have a high level of self-awareness, you may be able to debrief by yourself. To get other perspectives, try replicating the interview with a trusted friend and then debriefing with them. First, you’ll need to give your friend the relevant job posting, background on the organization and who interviewed you, and a list of questions you were asked so they can try to put themselves in the interviewer’s shoes. During the role-play, resist the urge to improve your answers; instead, stick with your answers from the real interview so you can do an accurate debrief.

What to cover in a debrief

Debriefing doesn’t have to be a long, complicated process. It can be as simple as taking time—even just 15 minutes—to ask yourself or your colleagues a few well thought-out questions.

The three basic categories to cover in a debrief are: what went well, what could have gone better, and what to do differently next time. To dig deeper, consider the following questions:

  • What surprised me?
  • What do I wish I had known at the beginning?
  • What challenges did I/we face? What helped me/us overcome the challenges, and what didn't work as well in overcoming those challenges?
  • How can you apply lessons learned from this event to other events, even if the situation isn't identical?
  • What changes can we make now, based on what we’ve covered in this debrief? What should we stop, start, or continue doing?

How to take a group debrief to the next level

Step one is recognizing the importance of debriefing and making it happen. But if you want to get even more out of a group debrief, try one of these tips.

  • Send the questions in advance. If you give people the questions in advance, you’re more likely to get deeper answers (as long as you provide enough time to process the questions prior to the meeting). Sending the questions in advance also signals that you want to have an in-depth conversation, instead of just scratching the surface.
  • Stay focused on the future and what you can control. Sometimes a debrief can get sidetracked if people rehash earlier decisions instead of staying focused on lessons learned. For example, if you’re debriefing a volunteer training, someone may say they felt the room was too small, and then the person in charge of choosing a venue may launch into an explanation of why that venue was chosen, why other larger venues may have been unsatisfactory, and… you get the picture. Pretty soon, you’re stuck in a conversation about something that’s in the past and can’t be changed. To prevent these kinds of tangents, establish a “ground rule” at the outset that the debrief isn’t the place for rehashing past decisions—and be prepared to enforce the rule as needed. If you start to see the conversation getting sidetracked, refocus it with a question like, “Setting aside the decision that was already made, what does this mean for the next time we do this (or something similar)?”

Show people how the debrief is changing things

Technically, this tip is for what you do after a debrief, not during, but it will make future debriefs more productive. One way to make people feel like debriefs are a valuable use of time—which makes them more likely to contribute in the moment—is to show them that the debrief isn’t just for show; that it’s actually changing what happens next.

To go back to the volunteer training example: Let’s say the venue was indeed too small, and another takeaway from the debrief is that it looked like attendees were being lectured too much. When the details of the next training are announced, share with the rest of the team that a larger venue was chosen and the agenda will be more interactive, per the discussion at the debrief.


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Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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