• Conversations in the Kitchen: The Do’s and Don’ts of Debriefs

    In our San Francisco studio we’re fortunate to have a large, open kitchen. Not unlike what you might experience at home, we often find ourselves migrating and gathering to this spot throughout the day. Maybe it’s the food. Or, maybe it’s the cold beer. More often than not, it’s just as likely that it’s for the conversation.

    On this specific occasion, our project team was in the kitchen conversing about the result of a client workshop. The dialogue revolved around common debriefing questions like:

    • What do you think went well?
    • What didn’t go so well?
    • What would we have done differently?

    It wasn’t an official debrief session, but it was a really great discussion and reminder of the value of debriefing as a team and with clients. The value runs deep, I’ve learned. Organizations who include debriefs as a consistent activity have shown individual and team performance can be enhanced by a whopping 25%.

    For this blog post I’d like to reflect on my own successes and failures when conducting or participating in debriefs and list out my top Do’s and Don’ts.

    Take a look and let me know if you agree.


    1. Keep it simple.

    A debrief shouldn’t feel like another long meeting or dreaded evaluation. It’s safe to assume that everyone is tired from the project so don’t make the group work too hard. Establish a few, clear objectives and approach the conversation as openly and simply as possible.

    2. Focus on the positive.

    It’s important to celebrate the positives and convey a ‘job well done’. But inevitably, debriefs will bring to light something you, your team, or client wishes would have been handled differently. Balance digging into what went wrong with digging into what went right. Successes are equally valuable to dissect so you can better understand how to replicate these moments again and again.

    3. Listen, duh.

    This is not the time to hog the conversation. Listening intently will not only get you closer to the root of mistakes and successes, but it is also an ingredient for relationship building. In these conversations, you will get nuggets of insight into what motivates your colleagues and your clients. So share the conversation. And, if you are leading the debrief, take a back seat.

    4. Consider conversation starters.

    If you think the group will have trouble speaking up, consider using conversation starters to encourage dialogue. At Adaptive Path, we’re fans of sticky notes. We’ll often start a debrief session by asking each person to write their top three successes on one color sticky note and their top three challenges on the other. The person leading the debrief can then ask team members to read/explain their responses and then cluster the sticky notes to find commonalities.


    1. Forget the agenda.

    For scheduled debriefs it’s important to have an agenda. Yup, I learned this the hard way. Even though you want the conversation to have an informal feel, don’t just wing it. When multiple people are involved it’s essential to help set expectations and guide the conversation. An agenda will do this. Without it you will inevitably risk people feeling like you’re wasting their time (not fun!).

    2. Dwell on mistakes.

    Mistakes happen. In fact, mistakes will always happen. Instead of lingering and dwelling on the mistake, learn to acknowledge it matter-of-factly and then move on. The goal is to understand what circumstances created the mistake so you can shape them differently next time around

    3. Make it personal.

    Pointing fingers never gets you to the result you want. Prevent yourself from getting too personal by detaching the players from the situation. Focus on the actions and issues at hand. Remember, the goal is for the team to learn as a whole from the conversation – not for the team to find someone to blame.

    4. End without action.

    There is a high likelihood that ideas will surface for helping support similar successes or prevent similar mistakes. Give those ideas room to become a reality by making specific action items an objective of the debrief. As a team, determine what’s next. Outlining these steps will instill a sense of confidence that there was tangible value beyond the conversation.

    In conclusion, debriefs (whether mid-project or post-project) are all about coming together with others in the spirit of honesty, improvement, and celebration. Maybe that’s why Adaptive Path chose to name our debriefs “After Parties.” I suppose we’re intentionally choosing to frame the conversation around the positive moments and outcomes of the experience, even if we did suffer a slight hangover.

    What are some other debriefing Do’s and Don’ts that you’ve personally experienced?

    There are 2 thoughts on this idea

    1. Brandon

      Beer should perhaps be on the ‘do’ list. Quiche, although referenced in the graphic, perhaps should not be on the ‘do’ list.

    2. Edgar

      Thank you Noel. Thoughtful ideas! This post was timely for me. Having a debrief allows me to realign with the team based on the outcome. Always looking to learn areas to improve and build upon. I think having a debrief provides a deeper level of conversation and team dynamics not found in just providing minutes.

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