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Future-Oriented Debriefing - A Short and Effective Methodology

1 November 2011
Dr. Moria Levy
A close-up of a human head

We have long heard about the importance of deriving lessons learned. Every manager can explain how crucial the issue is, how much we need to learn from the past to improve in the future, and the list goes on. However, the list of times organizations conduct debriefings and derive lessons learned is usually short.

Why does this happen? There are several reasons. We have previously emphasized the need to focus not only on deriving lessons but also on making them accessible to the organization and promoting their use. The organization must maintain effective processes that refine the lessons, assist in formulating and generalizing them, and subsequently plan in an orderly manner how to reintegrate them into the organizational work processes. However, there is another layer: the actual derivation of the lessons themselves.

We all rely on various methods for deriving lessons learned. Most of us are familiar with the classic debriefing method in which we gather facts, formulate recommendations, draw conclusions, and derive lessons and tasks. Some of us are also familiar with the AAR method, which originated from the U.S. Navy and asks four basic questions: What happened? What did we expect to happen? Why the gap? And what do we recommend for the future? Yet, we still need more. Despite our best intentions, the debriefing process is not easy to implement. The two main inherent limitations are:

  1. People get stuck in the early stages of the process, leaving little time for the crucial stage - learning for the future.

  2. People find it difficult to detach themselves from the emotional aspect of admitting a mistake during the lessons-learned process; even managers find this challenging and sometimes forget that they should not misuse the errors admitted by the employee.

The proposed method below addresses these two difficulties. It is short and straightforward, and by overcoming the existing problems, it appears to have the potential to be an effective methodology. The method includes a single question:

What would we recommend if we were to plan again today with all the additional knowledge?

The starting point for deriving lessons is that today, in hindsight, we know more than we knew at the time of action and certainly more than we learned during the initial planning stage. What would we recommend if we were to plan again today with all the additional knowledge? Each proposal should be analyzed to understand how and why its implementation could contribute to success and prevent stumbling upon obstacles.

That's it. This is the whole teaching. The first part, the starting point that today we have more information, eliminates the feeling of error and the emotional aspect accompanying that feeling. The second part ensures that the lessons learned are relevant and helpful for improvement. The absence of additional parts prevents investing time and resources in the past and what has been and focuses the discussion on issues - with a future-oriented perspective.

In two words - recommendation and justification; in four words - short and practical lessons learned.

You are invited to try it and share lessons about its effectiveness and usefulness.

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