Top Gun Debriefing – Just Do It!


(Part 2 of a Series on Debriefing and Continuous Improvement)

As I’ve networked or shared experiences with countless veterans who’ve transitioned to private sector leadership roles, one of our most common observations and frustrations is always “the concept of Debriefing is almost antithetical to U.S. business culture.”

Debriefing after every mission or significant event is a cultural component of today’s professional military. It’s not just a training thing, or something that happens when a mission doesn’t go well. Debriefing is at the core of high-performance military teams’  culture of continuous improvement.

The risks and stakes on aircraft carriers or with Special Operations teams are high. Reinforcing good performances and constructively learning from mistakes or failures is critical to continued success and survival.

Aren’t the stakes just as high with your business model? Can you afford to repeat costly mistakes, or treat symptoms versus the identifying and addressing the root cause of problems? Are you reinforcing positive behavior or newly discovered best practices? What IS your catalyst for creating a continuous improvement culture?

I’ve mentioned debriefing in several previous posts, and have implemented programs with several clients. In this piece I’ll review a few tips for how to begin instituting Debriefing into your routine operations and company culture.

Change Management is Key   A conscious change management approach should be considered as you implement Debriefing. Instituting the transparency and humility within a Debriefing culture can freak a lot of people out. The senior member of your group must work as an active and visible executive sponsor and take accountability for this type of chace. Smart communication, resistance management and reinforcement plans should be developed, based on the change management methodology your company employs.

Begin on a Positive and Routine Event   New Debrief leaders struggle to keep the exercise from becoming something that happens when events go poorly. Start out your first few debriefing sessions with events that had at least some positive outcomes. Remember, Debriefing is as much about reinforcing and encouraging good execution, as it is about identifying and correcting for errors.

Identify Problems and Solve Them to Root Cause   Debriefing is about acknowledging results, both good and bad, and asking a relentless series of “Why” questions. For Debriefing to be accepted and successful, solving identified problems to their root cause and putting solutions in place to correct for them will prove critical. Real solutions will create visible benefits and earn buy-in from the team.

Try to Take the “Who” Out of the Debrief   In the fighter squadron world, we consciously spoke in the 3rd person during debriefs. We referred to the Role our jets played during a mission, not our names. We symbolically peeled off name tags and rank insignia patches from our flight suits and placed them in a bowl prior to entering the Debrief room. Rank had no standing in a Debrief. Consider how your gang can objectively focus on the project and its results in the Debriefing process, and set a tone that removes names and titles.

Build a Repeatable Template as Your Debriefing Guide   This will vary by company and the type and scope of activities covered. An example:

  •    Review the Objective of the Event or Project
  •    Chronologically list activities as they occurred
  •    Review the Plan, Versus What Was Actually Executed
  •    Review Results and Outcomes
  •    Analyze and Reinforce What Worked
  •    Identify Problems and Root Causes
  •    Lessons Learned and After-Action Activities
  •    Conclusion: Upbeat and Encouraging (but not fake)

Professional Debriefing can transform a corporate culture. Navy fighter squadrons were far from perfect, but the transparency and constructiveness of our Debriefing process ensured we proactively accepted accountability, avoided the blame-game, and solved problems to root cause. We simply couldn’t afford to do business any other way.

Professional Debriefing will liberate your team and build a solid foundation for continuous improvement. Yet it’s not an easy task to undertake, or a simple program to implement. There will be resistance. Confer with any former military officers or NCOs on your staff, hire some (great idea!) or seek help from an outside consultant to guide your team towards the powerful and profitable benefits of Debriefing.

Jack Liles flew combat missions in the Navy F-14 Tomcat after graduating from The Citadel, and successfully transitioned into a sales and marketing career following his naval service. He’s held leadership roles at the ad agency Leo Burnett, Coca-Cola, UPS, several start-up tech and consulting companies, and is an occasional military analyst on CNN. Jack is a Partner at TechCXO, an executive professional services firm that provides C-level leadership and consulting services for clients seeking accelerated growth and revenue. Reach Jack at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s