If there was ever a year to keep in the rear-view mirror, it is 2020.  However, there are also reasons to embrace the year for what it was and debrief on critical achievements and lessons learned. In this post we look at why debriefs are a critical business tool, what you can debrief on from 2020 and how to conduct a successful debrief in a remote work environment.

The Value of Debriefing for Individuals and Organizations

Many of us think of a debrief as the final step in a project or a file before moving on to the next; indeed it is part of the legal project management methodology and training that we use at Stikeman Elliott for our lawyers.  What we tend to forget is why a debrief is so valuable for our ongoing development and that it can be leveraged in circumstances beyond individual legal projects or files.

In "Grit1", social scientist Angela Duckworth examines what distinguishes top performing individuals and organizations from the rest of the pack of good performers.  One key finding is that top performers use 'deliberate practice' to continuously improve their performance, even though they are already at the top of their game.  Lesser performers keep using skills they're already good at to continue to do things the way they have done them in the past.

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the 10,000 hours of experience required for true expertise identified by Anders Ericsson2. But as Duckworth points out, the crucial insight of Ericsson's research is less about the number of hours, and more about how experts deploy those hours.  It is the expert's use of "deliberate practice" during their 10,000 hours that leads to outstanding performance.  A key element of deliberate practice is that experts seek immediate feedback on how they did.

Conducting debriefs on a regular basis for projects and initiatives, particularly to understand what went wrong, is the organizational version of deliberate practice that provides us with the tools we need to keep improving and stay at the top of our game.

Looking Back Over 2020

If you have not already conducted debriefs or after-action reviews during 2020, it is not too late to start.  Some of the immediacy may have faded but that does not mean value cannot be gained from the process.  We often take a structured look back as a year is coming to a close to inform business planning for the upcoming year.  Debriefing an entire year is an overwhelming exercise so we focus on key initiatives or events that occurred.  There are five potential areas to focus on from 2020:

  • Business Continuity Plan. Even if you debriefed on your business continuity plan months ago, it would be useful to do so again with the added benefit of time.  Do you have an updated plan that provides a framework and is flexible enough to support the business through the next crisis?
  • Business Operations. Constantly changing rules and regulations required businesses to shift gears and direction several times during the year.  Debriefing on how your organization handled these changes could expose strengths and opportunities for improvement in your processes and operations.
  • Policies and Procedures. Similarly, how well did your policies and procedures accommodate the constant developments and changes through the year?  Did they support or hinder your business objectives?
  • In addition to ensuring disaster recovery and business continuity, debriefing on your technology capabilities could provide insights into changes you may need to make in 2021 and beyond.
  • Finally, how flexibly did your people processes and organizational structure respond to the upheaval caused by the pandemic?  What lessons learned can you take forward into the future?

Undertaking a Debrief

Conducting a debrief is not time consuming or difficult. We have developed a process that is easy to follow, easy to remember and is respectful of everyone's time. The key steps and considerations are as follows. 

Schedule your debrief 

  • Timing and duration. As noted above, the best time to debrief is shortly after the end of the project, file or initiative.  We try to keep our debriefs on files to 30 minutes, although more time might be needed for other projects.
  • Who to invite. Typically, everyone involved in the file or project is invited; however, depending upon the size of the group and the feedback you want to elicit from the discussion, you may want to organize a couple of different sessions. When you send the invitation, make sure that you describe what the debrief will cover and what is expected of those attending.
  • Consider using a facilitator. It is not necessary but can be very valuable.  A facilitator is a neutral party who was not part of the project so they can often assist with difficult discussions.  Additionally, because the facilitator is focused on the debrief, they will keep it on track and will ensure that feedback is heard from everyone.  Finally, in the remote work environment, a facilitator can assist with the technology you use to conduct your debrief.
  • Determine what technology you will use. Holding a debrief over a virtual meeting platform requires extra effort to solicit feedback from everyone and ensure that participants are heard.  Many virtual meeting platforms support whiteboard functionality which you can use to capture notes.  You could also explore using a collaboration platform such as Miro or Mural to have participants contribute feedback themselves as part of the process.

Take 10 minutes to prepare

Ask the team to prepare ahead of time by considering these three questions:

  • What worked well?
  • What would we do differently next time?
  • What could others learn from this?

We have a simple checklist and worksheet that attendees can use to capture their thoughts ahead of the session. We also suggest that they review any applicable project documentation that will refresh their memories - but the goal is not to add a lot of prep time for attendees but rather to make it easy to participate and share feedback.

Hold your debrief

Your first job in the meeting is to create 'psychological safety' so that everyone participates.  No two debrief sessions are the same so you need to be adaptable to the situation.  For example, a new team might be hesitant to start the discussion while a team that works together all the time may have difficulty staying on topic.

  • If the team is ready to start talking - let them go! If they are hesitant, speak first and share one thing that you thought went well (that others did) and one thing that was not so great that you would do differently next time (that you did).
  • When the discussion turns to errors made - share responsibility. Emphasize the positive and point out the difficulties of working in tight timeframes or making tough decisions.
  • Strive to allow others to offer solutions, rather than you offering them, but don't feel you have to arrive at all the solutions in the meeting. Some may require more thought or consultation with others.
  • Capture what is said. Someone can take notes - white board, flip chart or word document.  Alternatively, the team can use virtual post-it notes in a virtual collaboration tool.

Share with others

  • Delegate someone to summarize the take-aways of note and decide how to share them with others.
  • Communicate the feedback, lessons learned, tools and resources or any other administrative or operational improvements to make.

Using an Agile Approach to Debriefing in 2021

Every stage of the pandemic has been an opportunity to identify successes and lessons learned and the ongoing nature of this crisis makes it feel like one long project.  Flexibility and uncertainty have been the order of the day, so we have been changing lanes frequently and debriefing 'on the fly' at unexpected junctures.  Rather than waiting until the end of next year or other arbitrary points in time to debrief on operational and business impacts, we are considering how we can increase our "agile" management of this changing project by using retrospectives on a regular basis. 

A retrospective is one of the components an agile project where an ongoing feedback and debrief loop is critical.  While the retrospective is like the debrief, it focuses on keeping what is working, stopping what is not working and taking action to improve as the project or initiative moves forward.   For those interested, a google search can provide additional information and numerous resources related to conducting agile retrospectives.  We will experiment with using these iterative debrief techniques and are interested in hearing from others who have had success with a more frequent debrief approach through the pandemic.    


1 Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, (Scribner, 2016).

2 K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, "The Making of an Expert" (July-August 2007), The Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.