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The Lost (or Never Learned) Art of Debriefing - Reviving the Lost Art of Debriefing

In today's penny-pinched environment, you can't afford to send employees to events without capturing what they learn. The model? The military debriefing. You need a systematic approach to what was once an informal process, a practice woven into the fabric of organizational life. And the answer isn't simply more debriefings—they have to become better.

In the military, where debriefings originated, personnel returning from a mission are questioned—sometimes gently, sometimes aggressively—to make sure everything they noticed and learned has been evaluated and shared with the right people. But you don't have to agree with the popular image of business as war to benefit from debriefing. In fact, the less that employees associate debriefings with extraordinary events, the better. Consultant Peg C. Neuhauser, author of Corporate Legends and Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool (McGraw-Hill, 1993), says you can tell how well debriefing works in an organization by observing how many times people ask each other, "What do you think about that?" The more debriefing is integrated into your company's everyday activities, the more useful a tool it becomes.

With people traveling less frequently, and with fewer people from the same company traveling to the same crucial events, debriefing is now an even more vital means of knowing what your customers think and need, what your competition is doing, and where your industry is headed. Granted, the informal sharing of what employees picked up from a conference, training seminar, or client meeting will always be an important information channel. But a systematic approach to debriefing that is woven into the fabric of organizational life can enhance the frequency and richness of that informal exchange.

The more debriefing is integrated into your company's everyday activities, the more useful a tool it becomes.
— Jimmy Guterman

Sometimes the information gleaned from a debriefing will challenge a company's deep-seated frames of reference. Precisely because of the threat the new information represents, there needs to be a process for ensuring that it isn't summarily dismissed. More frequently, the information will be less earth shattering: It will simply confirm internal expectations or highlight incremental improvements that can be made, or it may even be irrelevant. But here, too, it's important to have an established procedure for sorting, evaluating, and disseminating what's been experienced.

Build in the expectation. Meetings or conferences that are important enough to travel to or pay for deserve debriefing sessions. Once everyone understands that, they'll be more diligent about taking notes or distilling what they've learned. It's also a good idea to set a time—before he heads off to the conference—for an employee to share what he's learned.

Debrief using company-specific terms and concepts. Debriefings help companies understand what's happening outside in the context of what's happening inside. So use internal terminology that your audience is familiar with, and encourage those being debriefed to do the same. "If you want to be heard in a debriefing, you have to use language that the company understands," says John Clippinger, founder of Parity, a maker of knowledge management software in Boston. "Otherwise, it gets lost."

Be succinct—and debrief as soon after the event as possible. The sooner you debrief, the more likely insights and enthusiasm are to catalyze your unit. Extract the highlights of your trip or training session, not every step.

Create a predictable structure. People perform better in debriefings when they can follow an established procedure. At one Chicago-based e-consultancy, employees get five minutes to deliver an overview of what they learned. Then they answer three to eight questions that have been submitted beforehand by managers and internal experts. Whenever it's appropriate, publish a transcript of the debriefing session on the company's intranet, so others can read it and add to it. And don't forget to do the same for presentations by outside vendors. David Forrester, director of practice development for the Watertown, Massachusetts, Internet professional services firm Molecular, reports that after each such presentation, a standard e-mail is sent to attendees asking five basic questions. Among them: "Can you think of a current client who could use this solution?"

Remember the power of stories. Even the most valuable facts, figures, and concepts can be easily overlooked or forgotten. Unless such information is delivered as a story, says Neuhauser, "it's hard for people to even remember what you say." For example, instead of stressing the theoretical basis for a new manufacturing process that you've learned about, craft a narrative that focuses on how people will be affected—how they'll save time, be safer, or be freed up to pursue other activities. The best debriefings produce compelling stories that spur employees to share what they know and take action on what they've heard.

Reprinted with permission from "The Lost (or Never Learned) Art of Debriefing," Harvard Management Update, Vol. 7, No. 3, March 2002.

Jimmy Guterman is president of The Vineyard Group.

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