Some US Air Force Aviators deep in the Debrief

Why Military Pilots Debrief Every Mission (and Why You Should Too!)

Imagine the scenario, you’ve just landed after a busy mission flying a navy helicopter from an aircraft carrier. You were part of a 6 person crew and you carried out multiple different sub-missions operating to and from a number of different ships and airfields. It has been complicated, challenging and full of lessons to learn for the future.

Everybody in the crew is hot, tired and hungry, the galley (canteen) has just opened and you are all desperate to get some food and some rest.

But wait, you can’t disappear into the ship yet, we have to have a debrief (as the title suggests, military pilots always debrief every mission).

What do you do? Do you quickly carry out the most efficient (rushed) debrief you can to tick the box? Or do you let everybody in the crew wind down, grab a bite to eat and reflect on the mission before meeting up at a time and place suitable for everybody?

I’m going to be honest, I’ve done both at times. The “efficient” debrief provided much needed relief and at the time I was grateful, but on the occasions that we’ve taken the time to properly reflect, discuss and draw conclusions from our flight it has always produced at least a few gems that we could take away.

Properly conducted and structured debriefs give us the opportunity to analyse our performance during the mission and assess how successful we were in achieving the mission objectives. Debriefs give us the opportunity to share our lessons with others, helping to not only improve our crew’s performance but the performance of the organisation as a whole.

I have to be frank, my experiences and opinions on the importance of debriefing has changed significantly over the past few years as I’ve moved into supervision and instructional roles. I used to think that debriefs took too long and yielded few results, but since I’ve used debriefs in both the air instructional environment and in leadership coaching I’ve seen how important debriefing is for continuous improvement.

Why is it that often, after we’ve been trained and let into the big wide world, we don’t debrief our missions/ bids/ projects properly anymore?

How many opportunities to develop ourselves, our teams and our organisations have been missed?

I’ve facilitated and have been involved in hundreds of debriefs (good and bad) and offer three elements that I think are key to an effective debrief:

  1. Make sure you put plenty of time aside – This is easier said than done but is vital. Ensure that everybody has wound down since the mission, has had the chance to reflect and is ready to discuss their thoughts.
  2. Make sure you highlight the objectives of the mission – It is important to always keep the objectives of the mission in mind throughout the debrief to make sure you don’t lose track of what you were trying to achieve.
  3. Don’t go straight in for the kill – By this I don’t mean avoid difficult subjects or the elephant in the room. What I mean is, before you launch into laying down some critical feedback, put the subject/ incident out there and let people discuss it. There’s a good chance that the crew member concerned is aware of what they did, they might just need a bit of encouragement to talk about it and think about what they would do better next time.

There are many more aspects to consider in order to facilitate a good debrief, these are just my top 3.

What are yours?

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