The Art of the Debrief, Part 2

  • Published
  • By Col. Ken Eaves
  • 131st Bomb Wing commander

Editor’s Note: To read Part 1 of “The Art of the Debrief” by Col. Ken Eaves, visit

A few weeks ago, in the July 6 edition of The Warrior, I shared the need to debrief in order to push our organizations to reach their full potential. Now that you appreciate the value of debriefing, I recognize that some of you might have no idea how to do a debrief. This article is for you.

First, to be able to lead an effective debrief, we must understand some key terms. These are taken from Robert Teschner’s USAF Weapons Review article, “The Vocabulary of the Mission Debrief”:

Desired Focus Point is the major point (or points) that need(s) to be addressed during the debrief. It is usually phrased in the form of a question, and points the learning in the direction of where the mission failed to meet planned objectives.

Contributing Factor is an event or occurrence that potentially contributed to a specific desired focus point.

Root Cause is the single contributing factor – usually the earliest factor in the process – that, if not present, would not have prevented mission success

Learning Point is a significant issue that did not result in mission failure, but if not addressed could lead to mission failure in the future.

Equipped with these terms, let’s put words into action and debrief!

On a whiteboard or equivalent display list all the mission failures – or desired focus points – from the event. If your event was small, maybe it was the overall mission that did not go as desired, so there may be only desired focus points, be sure to list them on different boards, or laterally along the same board. Include as much detail as possible, so that everyone in the room knows what is being discussed without having to ask (date, time, location, issue, etc.). 

Under each desired focus point, list all of the possible contributing factors, even if you think you know that some may not apply. It is important to help your team work through the process so you don’t leave any questions unanswered and you prepare them for the day they are running the debrief. An effective debriefer can quickly eliminate noncontributing factors, so that the focus stays on those items that truly impacted execution.

As a rule, contributing factors can be broken down to four key areas; we’ll refer to them as “the 4 Ps”:

Plan: includes all planning factors, such as established processes, instructions, resources (manning, equipment and funding), coordination, communications, etc., that might have led to the desired focus point.

Preparation: focuses on the few days leading up to the event (or when actual preparation activities started), and includes the same items as in the planning stage above, but is more focused on final aspects of resources, coordination and communication that might have led to the desired focus point.

People: specifically addresses individual or group execution of the mission that might have led to the desired focus point.

Process: any other outside influence during execution phase, other than people that might have led to the desired focus point.

Note: In any phase, when looking at communication, always look at both aspects: what an individual thought they said and what an individual thought they heard.

If there are multiple issues within a contributing factor, list these out individually as secondary contributing factors.

A good technique is to add “walk-away” details to the list, so that everyone leaves with the same understanding. In other words, next to the contributing factor and/ or the desired focus point, write down what corrective action would prevent a reoccurrence next time. Draw arrows to point to those contributing factors that led to the desired focus point and erase the contributing factors that did not. While erasing helps focus the group, if your plan to use the debrief to help you craft your after-action report, you might want to strike through the noncontributing factors instead.

The last thing is to determine the root cause, which in most cases is the contributing factor that occurred first. Without the first contributing factor, often – but not always – the other contributing factors also do not occur. (This is not always the case, but it is a general rule.) This doesn’t mean that the other contributing factors aren’t discussed and corrected, but does mean there is an understanding by everyone involved that the other contributing factors are factors generated by the root cause. Next, circle the root cause and recap the learning that took place. Focus your discussion on what can be done better next time, not on individual failures. It is important to remember to KEEP EMOTION OUT OF THE DEBRIEF.

If the mission went smoothly or something was missed that did not impact the overall event, these are learning points. If learning points are significant enough, use the same procedure listed above, replacing the learning points where you had desired focus points.

Done well, debriefing will make each participant better, and will ultimately make the team better. In addition, you will see future events not repeat the same errors.

Lead strong and make a difference!

Willie B