The Art of the Debrief, Part 1

  • Published
  • By Col. Kenneth S. Eaves
  • 131st Bomb Wing

In my humble opinion, there are no better aircrews in the skies than those in the United States military. While others may boast about their talented aviators, there are certain aspects to how our aircrews approach their craft that set them apart. One of the most important aspects is the debrief.  The debrief is so vital that countless papers and articles have been written on the topic at the United States Air Force Weapons School. The problem is that debriefing doesn’t just belong in the operations squadron or to flight operations.

Effective debriefing is a tool that enhances mission accomplishment over time, and can be used in every mission we perform. Unfortunately, it is the one that we skip or ignore, usually because we feel we lack sufficient time for it. In an over-tasked, under-manned organization, all the energy goes into planning and execution of a mission or event. And, as soon as the execution phase is over, we move on to the next event. We might generate some form of after-action report, but while AARs tend to highlight mission “goods” and “bads,” they rarely do enough analysis to prevent “bads” in the future. While I don’t have any empirical data, there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that without effective debriefing, we spend more time repeating errors than what would have been spent preventing them. Bottom line: if you want a better organization that executes the mission more effectively with Airmen who are better equipped, you NEED to debrief.

Next week, in part 2 of this piece, we will answer the question, “how do you perform an effective debrief?” But before we can begin, several things need to be in place.

1.       We need to ensure we have the right information so that we can effectively debrief. This is an extremely critical step that will make or break the debrief. It is imperative that during any exercise, event, or mission that an individual or a group be tasked with taking quality notes. In addition, ask all individuals to take note of anything they notice out of the norm or not working correctly.

2.       As a rule of thumb, when taking notes, comprehensive notes should answer four of the five “W”s (who, what, when and where). We will get to the fifth “W” in the debrief (why). With regard to the “who,” note any specific people or organizations so the right personnel can be invited to the debrief. As for the “what,” be sure to be precisely descriptive. Debriefs don’t always happen immediately, and the quality of notes will directly impact the ability to recall any issues so they can be addressed adequately.

3.       Someone needs to be in the lead. This doesn’t have to be the highest rank. In fact, it should be whoever is tasked with running the event, or the person who is the most knowledgeable about the event. It is essential in a debrief that rank “be left out of the room,” so the focus can be on mission execution improvement. That doesn’t mean we don’t still follow normal customs and courtesies. But, if the colonel or chief made the error, they will need to fess up and be told how to do the task better in the future.

4.       With that said, professionalism and respect should be a fundamental part of every debrief, regardless of rank. If everyone is treated the same – with respect – in the debrief, then everyone is more comfortable with being open and honest with their inputs. One way I have found success in opening up the room when I run the debrief, I always debrief myself harder than anyone else. In addition, I usually am the first to take blame for any failure. If I’m running the debrief, I was probably in charge in some manner and likely have some culpability in an error.  

Finally, a few simple checklist items to get you ready:

  • Be sure to set aside enough time to do root cause analysis
  • Be sure to reserve a room with adequate space for all necessary participants
  • Be sure to have some form of visual display so that the issues to be discussed, as well as additional deliberation, can be seen by all (white board, large projection screen, etc.)
  • Be sure you have all the necessary people who can intelligently discuss the areas of mission execution that need to be addressed

As I mentioned in the beginning, an effective mission debrief can turn a good organization into a great one. It is the answer to the question, “how do we do it better next time?” You have enough information to start debriefing mission execution today. But, if you still want more, next week I’ll provide you with some tools on how to debrief.

Lead strong and make a difference!