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Ian Brett

Insights Learning and Development

Learning and Development Consultant

Read more from Ian Brett

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What we can learn about debriefing from the world of flying

How the debriefing process - essential to success in the world of flight - can help leaders achieve excellence.
Woman spreading arms and flying illustration

As a former fast-jet pilot, instructor, and coach for the Royal Air Force (RAF), who now works as an L&D consultant for Insights, I’ve come to realise that some numerous transferable skills and practices can be applied in the learning and development industry and the workplace more widely. Like the corporate world, flying consists of planning, briefing, executing, and debriefing. Unlike it, however, debriefing is a critical part of the continuous improvement process where marginal gains are identified and applied to future missions. 

For debriefing to become a critical part of the continuous improvement process it must take place after every project, without exception

It’s all in the debriefing

Of course, the practice of debriefing isn’t new to learning and development. However, it’s usually focused on the individual as a way of improving individual performance or an individual’s contribution to the team. I believe that the L&D industry could benefit from adopting the practice of debriefing as a community as a way to build a positive culture and improve individual, team, and overall company performance.

With that in mind I’ve identified the key elements to successful debriefing, which can be introduced to any team in any organisation.

  1. Culture: establishing and maintaining a culture of routine debriefing
  2. Process: consistently following the same debriefing structure
  3. Environment: creating and maintaining a psychologically safe environment for learning

Culture

For debriefing to become a critical part of the continuous improvement process it must take place after every project, without exception. If your team or organisation doesn’t deliver discrete projects regularly, proactively create regular opportunities where the team come together to debrief. 

In the flying world, our rank disappears whenever we enter the debrief. What I mean by this, is that we intentionally nurture an open culture, where hierarchy doesn’t inhibit authentic feedback. Everyone in the debriefing session has an equal voice regardless of seniority, experience, age, and gender – all identifiers are removed. 

As a learning consultant, I help to establish a common language that enables people to raise issues and challenges positively and healthily, avoiding any kind of misunderstanding or upset. For example applying a colour energy model, which is underpinned by Jungian psychology principles can cut through the complexity of why we behave the way we do. It demonstrates our preferences and how we show and can help to create effective communication and team cohesion.

It’s my experience that it’s always important to leave the debrief on a positive note

Process

In the flying world, we use the REVIEW process to ensure the structure is the same for every debrief.

Re-integrate

Gather the team back together and re-establish the connection. Ensure everyone is comfortable, receptive and has adopted a learning mindset.

Establish the aim

Remind the team of the shared goal and ensure everyone is bought into it. Use this time to qualify that everyone is working towards the same end goal.

Verify what happened

Understandably, everyone will have their version of events. So, it’s vital to allow everyone to ‘speak their truth’. This process can help to create a time of events and share different experiences and perceptions. Ultimately, the goal here is to focus on what happened – not who is responsible – and to achieve consensus if at all possible.

Input information

Capture everything that was done ‘well’ in a ‘good’ column and everything that wasn’t so good in an ‘other’ column. It this vital that this part of the debriefing is done together so everyone can understand why things went well – or didn’t – and capture observations, feedback and ‘lessons learned’.

Emphasise key points

this could generate a lot of input/output so make sure to prioritise the key actions that will be taken after the debrief. It’s unlikely you can solve all the issues every time, but you should be able to identify one or two (three at the most) key actions that will make a big positive difference going forward.  

What’s Next?

Agree and assign responsibility for the agreed actions, so that everyone knows who is responsible for what, and by when.  

It’s my experience that it’s always important to leave the debrief on a positive note. Even the most robust individual will find it challenging to spend an intensive session exploring real or perceived weaknesses and failures. So, ensure everyone is clear on the positive aspects of what went well and understands that the debriefing process is designed to improve overall team performance and move you towards flawless execution in future.

Environment

For the REVIEW process to be successful, it must be conducted in an environment of psychological safety, where everyone is comfortable to volunteer their input and share any mistakes. Below are a few recommendations to achieve this:

1. As a leader, emphasise your sub-standard performance. Being authentic and vulnerable is the best and fastest way to build a debriefing culture.

2. Ensure everyone understands that the purpose of the debriefs is to raise team performance. It’s not about allocating blame or trying to punish anyone for making mistakes. It’s all about the ‘what’ and not the ‘who.’

People absorb and process information differently, resulting in different judgements and decisions being reached

3. Where possible, use a third-person narrative – like roles or job titles, rather than names. This helps depersonalise any criticism. 

4. When discussing behaviours or actions, compare them to organisational norms, procedures, and standards. Where possible, avoid comparing one individual’s behaviour to another as this reduces the perception of a personal attack.

5. Be dispassionate while remaining empathic – this process is about authentic, vulnerable, and learning together to achieve continuous improvement and overall performance.

People absorb and process information differently, resulting in different judgements and decisions being reached. Seeking to understand personality types and preferences can help build and maintain positive relationships and create an environment of psychological safety. 

Establishing a debriefing culture, underpinned by a robust process, and where there is an environment of safety, will change your team’s attitude and drive towards continuous improvement and achieving excellence.

Interested in this topic? Read Three reflection methods to boost productivity.

Author Profile Picture
Ian Brett

Learning and Development Consultant

Read more from Ian Brett
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