Around here, we love when projects begin. There’s a buzz in the air as things kick off, discovery sessions happen, creative work blooms and the wheel starts to turn. As progress flourishes, there’s a natural ebb and flow to the level of excitement that goes through our project teams. And eventually, if we’ve done our jobs right, each project comes to a close. (If we’ve done our jobs really right, it closes on time. And on budget. Agency goals.)
When projects end at Ambient, we like to have project debriefs. It’s not always easy to get them scheduled, because regardless of how a project ended – with sighs of happiness, exasperated weariness, on high notes, on low notes – there’s a tendency to want to move on and get that New Project High again. And who can blame anyone for not feeling like a recap session – especially if the project was unusually fraught with tension or revision exhaustion. So sometimes there’s a little bit of rallying that’s required to assemble our team again and talk about the project. But we do it, because we’ve found that it’s worth it.
What’s a Debrief?
Debriefing after a project involves getting all the key players of the team together and talking about all the good, bad, and meh things that happened on the project. Some agencies call this a Post-Mortem. Dearly Beloved, this project has died and we are all gathered here today to discuss what on earth happened. We’re not crazy about death analogies in general, but whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t matter – the point is to actually do it.
When we first started debriefing completed projects about a year ago, there was a long list of questions that we tried to get through with the assembled team. Not everyone had to answer every question – the focus was for whoever felt like contributing to feel comfortable giving an answer when he or she felt like it. This worked ok, but it made debriefs long. Especially when one person’s answer would trigger more answers, which eventually led everyone down a rabbit trail. So we shortened the list. Then we shortened it some more. Then, finally, we were like “Do we really need more than 3 questions?” Turns out, we don’t!
Here are the main components of our debriefs:
One hour. No more. Seriously.
We’ve found zero reasons to debrief on any project for more than an hour. Usually, it’s the perfect amount of time. Sometimes, depending on team dynamics, the debrief will try to become its own monster and devour your entire afternoon. YOU MUST DEFEAT IT. The time limit should be clear to everyone from the get-go, and chances are most people will be relieved.
People hate meetings. People love snacks. We neutralize things with some chips, popcorn, candy. We add some beer, if it’s appropriate. Whatever works for that particular team. We’ve noticed that snacks help everyone relax. Debriefs shouldn’t be miserable, if it can be helped.
Someone with the ability to engage everyone neutrally and keep people on track should facilitate the debrief. The moderator also gives an intro and goes over the rules. Our rules in a nutshell: Be concise, Be nice, Be solution focused. Throughout the debrief, the moderator can facilitate moving everyone from one question to the next. As the end of the debrief approaches, he or she prompts wrapping things up with that hand gesture where you twirl your index finger in the air. No other hand gestures, please.
We don’t dictate time limits on answers, but different projects necessitate different discussions. You know best if the project you’re debriefing requires allowing time for everyone to get things out on the table, or if short answers will do.
The purpose of a debrief is to learn from past projects and make future projects, processes, and systems better. Debriefs are not a place for airing grievances, pointing fingers or adult tantrums. Not everyone has to have a secret crush on everyone else, but the focus should be on solutions. Hopefully, the debrief can provide an added value of growing team communication and unity. People who hate each other can fight behind the bleachers after school. (Aka: send tweets with passive aggressive hashtags. #kidsthesedays)
- What worked?
- What didn’t work?
- What can we do differently next time?
Literally, that’s all we ask at our Ambient debriefs. Everyone is encouraged to answer as we make our way from one question to the next. It’s amazing how much can be gleaned from three simple questions.
Someone should take notes, so answers are recorded and can be referenced later. We do this in Google docs or a document we save in dropbox.
Wrap it up. Don’t let things linger. Did everyone answer every question? Is time almost up? Looks like the debrief is done.
Make the meeting notes available to everyone. They should be easily accessible.
It’s easy to go through the motions of a debrief, file the notes away and continue doing exactly all the same things again. A good gauge for Ambient of whether we are honoring our debriefs is the outcome of our future debriefs. Is all the same stuff not working on this project as the last project? We should probably work on that now.
How do you do debriefs, post-mortems, retrospectives, etc? Is there something you’ve done that makes these things easier? For the love of all that is good and beneficial, tell us about it: firstname.lastname@example.org