Why Leaders Should De-Brief
There is a lot of evidence available to support the wisdom and value of investing necessary time, effort and energy in the pre-planning of any worthwhile task or activity. Pausing long enough to consciously and thoroughly think through the process, including the anticipation of required steps, phases and alternatives, can ultimately mean the difference between success and failure in any endeavor.
In fact, it has been suggested by time management gurus that for every unit of time (i.e., minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.) spent in planning a particular activity, upwards of four times that amount of time can be expected to be saved during the implementation phase of those plans. In other words, if we spend a measly fifteen minutes poring over atlases and maps, carefully predetermining our vacation driving route through unfamiliar terrain, we can reasonably expect to save an hour or more that might otherwise have been lost due to road construction and congestion, wrong turns, dead ends and having to stop to ask for directions. For those of us who, so far, have refused to surrender our pioneer spirit by becoming GPS-dependent (is it just me and my Kentucky/Daniel Boone roots or what?), such focused pre-planning serves as a key ingredient in a more enjoyable journey.
I was in the midst of developing and presenting a months-long, comprehensive leadership and customer service training initiative for the management team of the Ocala (FL) Police Department, when I received an unsolicited call from Captain Jack Suess (pronounced “cease”). The call went something like this:
Capt. Suess: “Phil, I’ve been talking with the Chief about the training you’re leading for our agency. We were thinking that since you’ve never worked as a cop that you might be interested in seeing how law enforcement really works from the inside out. Understanding what we really do might be helpful to you in offering unique perspectives and even additional applications for the training concepts you’re sharing with us.”
Van Hooser: “I certainly would be interested. What do you have in mind?”
Capt. Suess: “We’re in the final stages of an investigation that has been underway for several weeks. Our undercover people have surveillance information concerning two juveniles and a known convicted felon who we know to be actively selling crack cocaine out of one of the public housing complexes. These guys are known to be armed and dangerous. They are also street smart and unpredictable. It’s critical that we get them off the streets before they hurt someone. We’re in the final planning stages of a S.W.A.T. operation that is scheduled to take place tomorrow night. Would you like to ride along with me as an observer?”
My pulse quickened at Capt. Suess’ suggestion. Was it fear, trepidation, uncertainty? I didn’t really know and there wasn’t much time to figure it all out. Having to real idea of what I was getting myself into, I heard myself ask meekly…
Van Hooser: “Are you sure I won’t be in the way?”
Capt. Suess: “Absolutely not! We will be glad to have you along. And don’t worry, you will be perfectly safe.”
Van Hooser: “Worried? Do I seem worried?” I asked, as I laughed nervously.
As scheduled, the following day at noon I arrived at the Ocala Police Department headquarters where I found Capt. Suess waiting. I was quickly ushered into a briefing that was already underway. In the room were a dozen or more uniformed officers, two plain clothes officers–a policeman and policewoman, a representative from the State Attorney’s office and the Chief of Police himself.
For the next 45 minutes or so, I listened as the group discussed detailed plans for apprehending the suspects. They carefully evaluated the intelligence they had and matched that intelligence with the best time, place and manner to make the arrests. Significant time and attention was spent considering the safest and most efficient approach for all concerned–the officers, the local residents, potential bystanders, even the suspects themselves.
As I watched and listened intently to the goings-on in front of me, I had to remind myself that this was not some sort of reality show. It was no show at all. It was reality! In front of me were professionals of the highest order, in the midst of planning and strategizing how to do a difficult job assigned them in the most judicious manner.
Once the meeting adjourned, I headed out to the driving range with my host where I watched the group practice rolling stops and vehicle evacuations. Every stop was timed and rated. No detail was too minor for consideration.
The balance of that afternoon and evening was spent in equally impressive practice and careful preparation for the planned activities of the evening ahead. It was an amazing experience to be a part of.
Finally, by 10:00 p.m.–a full 10 hours after I had joined the planning process–everyone and everything was in place. I won’t attempt to provide a blow-by-blow description of the events of the evening. Once the action started there were screeching tires, screaming sirens, shouts and arrests–luckily, there were no shots fired. Simply put, the plan was initiated and the intended arrests were made. From an organizational standpoint, the plan worked and the bad guys were soon behind bars.
I must admit, it was an exhilarating experience, one I won’t soon forget. However, I must also admit that as we drove back into the police department parking lot at about 11:30 p.m., I was more than ready to call it a day. As I exited the patrol car, I stepped around and extended my hand to Capt. Suess. He just looked at me.
“Thank you for including me in all this. It’s been a very valuable day for me. I’ve learned a lot,” I said.
“You’re not free to go just yet,” Capt. Suess said matter-of-factly, without accepting my hand. “We still have the operation de-brief to attend to. Follow me,” he said, as he turned and headed for the administration building. My options being limited, I did as I was told.
I followed Capt. Suess back into the briefing room where the day had started for me almost 12 hours earlier. There we found most of the officers who had been engaged in the operation of the evening, already assembled. For the next 20 minutes or so, I listened to the roundtable conversation as it centered on specific answers to a handful of questions.
As I listened intently to the discussion around me, a professional reality soon settled over me. I realized that I had worked as a manager in corporate America for the better part of 10 years. I had been engaged in the planning and implementation of innumerable plans and projects during that period of time. However, in that briefing room on that evening I realized for the first time that I had never before been involved in any sort of de-briefing AFTER the operation had been concluded. As interesting as the previous 11+ hours had been, those last few minutes provided me the tidbit that would allow me to be a better leader and communicator from that point forward.
That night I learned the power of the de-brief. Since that night I have been sharing the lessons I learned there with my management audiences by way of 6 questions. Consider these 6 questions carefully. First, ask yourself how often you have used each in the past. Second, ask yourself how valuable they might be should you start using them now. Of course, to yield positive benefit each question needs to be asked openly, answered honestly and acted upon accordingly.
The 6 questions are:
- What did we do well?
- What did we do poorly?
- Who should be acknowledged publicly for their superior performance?
- Who should be redirected privately for their sub-par performance?
- What have we learned from this operation?
- What should we change before the next one?
We all recognize the power that resides in proper planning. But, as has been said before by others, feedback is the breakfast of champions.