Russ Thomas – SQL Judo

The Art of SQL Server Database Administration, Development, and Career Skills for the Technically Minded

Debrief, it’s important (part two)

In part one I shared personal history in an attempt to identify the goal of a “post incident debrief” – we also used to call them “after actions” or “AAR”. My current company calls them “post mortems”. Whatever you call them, the goal is increasing the likelihood of future successful outcomes.


One of the best books I ever read on leadership and success is Lucky Forward.  A history of General George S Patton and the Third Army during WWII.  You want to talk about agile practices?  That guy was the father of it.  If you like military history or want to be an effective leader check it out.  Daily stand-up, yeah, that was Patton’s idea.  Debriefs? The guy was a master.

As Patton taught me, any objective anywhere on the spectrum of success or failure will benefit from a debrief. This isn’t just an exercise to follow failure. Repeating and reinforcing wins may be even more critical to future success and moral.

What elements are required to hold a debriefing?

  1. Moderator.  Even a two person debrief has someone guiding the conversation.
  2. Agents.  As a general rule, anyone who participated in the action, should be involved in the after action.

    You might say, but Russ, Patton didn’t debrief with the whole of 3rd army after every battle.  You’d be right.  But he didn’t assign objectives to the whole of 3rd army either.  He assigned them to his direct reports and the resources as his disposal.  It was the duty of those guys to debrief those to whom the tasks had been delegated.

  3. Documentation.  Bring means to document.  Remember the mantra: If it wasn’t recorded, it didn’t happen.

What discussion elements make up an effective debriefing?  It really comes down to these five topics.

1. The Objective

  • Was the objective defined?
  • Was it understood by each participant?
  • Were the roles of each player properly assigned?

2. The Action

  • In light of the stated object; what actually occurred?
  • How closely did the actual actions taken match the objective?
  • What cowboy activity arose spontaneously that could have/should have been predicted?

3. The Bad

  • What didn’t go well?  Why?

4. The Good  ( I like to finish with desert )

  • What DID go well? Why?

5. The What Now?

  • What actions will be taken based on what we’ve learned and identified?

What outcomes indicate a successful debriefing?  At a minimum it should include the following:

  1. Documentation.  Available to all.
  2. Action items.  Make sure they are possible.  Some would say “actionable”.
  3. Follow up.

    Follow up verifies that actionable items were implemented.  The objective of future debriefs should always consider as part of its analysis the implementation of past action items.

    I know what you’re thinking – debrief the debrief ?  Yes, maybe, just for a minute.

A debrief can still be casual or informal and even short.  I’ve done them standing side by side at the urinal – seriously.  But it should always be deliberate, purposeful, and actionable.

Now for the Judo.  A truly effective debrief must navigate elements that you can’t simply list in a template.

1. Communication.  The most important.  The verbal judo in an after action is critical.  Remember that Judo isn’t about winning, it’s about positive outcomes.  When the yelling starts, the moderator should be the voice of calm – but everyone involved should at least try to be cordial.  I frankly believe that sometimes it’s ok to let people vent, but when it has passed the point of constructive communication, it’s time to step in, take a break.

It’s hard, but when one person is yelling the others must take a deep breath and try not to escalate those emotions.  And remember, even if your not the one yelling you may still be coming across as a condescending ass.

Not talking at all is worse than yelling, in my opinion.  The moderator should recognize if someone is being bullied, has shutdown, or is not contributing.  The moderator should invite comments from everyone at each step.  We call it round robin.  One by one we go around the room and solicit comment.  I regularly practice this with my kids at the dinner table.  We call it high’s and low’s.  What was the best part about your day?  What was the worst part?  Sometimes it’s amazing what you find out.

2. Timing.  The debrief should occur close enough to the actual action that memories are clear and participants are available.  Recognize however that immediately following a high stress event there might be fatigue, stress, emotions that need some time to cool off.

3. Ego. Leave it at the door.  The most important ego to leave at the door belongs to the moderator.  If possible the person leading the debrief shouldn’t have a dog in the fight.  Its ok if they care about the success of the project.  Their own bonus just shouldn’t be riding on the outcome not revealing faults of their own.  For all participants; CYA has no place here.

4. Honesty.  This process is about honest communication and feedback.  We all build relationships with co-workers.  It can be hard to identify the failure of someone you enjoy working with or celebrate the contributions of someone you loathe.  Admitting fault may be the hardest of all.  Well,… grow up.  Put on your big boy/girl pants and open up.  But, just as you left your ego at the door, try not to take any negative emotions with you when you leave.

5. Relationships.  It’d be nice if every debrief were celebratory, with cake and ice cream.  But there are going to be some not so sparkly moments.  If you take someone to task, you HAVE to be willing to rebuild the bridge once it’s over.  Some of my favorite co-workers engage me regularly in very heated conversations.  But they’re sincere, and we both have the same goal.  That matters.  Work is work, but leave it there.  Value people for people’s sake.

6. Commitment.  The participants need to be committed to the success of the team.  If you have a saboteur in the group – it’s time to talk to HR.  Keep people focused on the goal.  Not judging each other as human beings, but judging the actions taken as professionals.  If the team desires success over recognition they’ll end up with both.  If you only care about reputation, you’ll end up with neither.

This is a very small guide and a very broad topic.  There can be huge variance in actual application.  From hallway conversations lasting a few moments to multi-day crit-sit analysis projects.

If you remember anything, remember that the point is to increase the occurrence of success.

My next post, I’m going to actually write about sql server.  There may even be some t-sql.  Stay tuned.

Image credits – Patton wikimedia commons.

4 comments on “Debrief, it’s important (part two)

  1. joseph_c
    October 18, 2013

    Excellent article.

    I’d add in that occasionally you may not want everyone involved in the AAR. There has been one instance where the PiC of the issue was excused by HIS boss on order to foster an environment of open sharing.

    Without an open environment free of the threat of reprisal, an AAR is pointless. Comments will be pandered to please whoever is in charge.

    • RThomas
      October 18, 2013

      Great point – thanks for the input!

  2. Steve Stedman
    October 18, 2013

    Nice article. In Scrum we call this the Retrospective where we analyze 3 things.
    1. what we want to keep doing.
    2. what we want to stop doing.
    3. what we can to start doing.

    • RThomas
      October 18, 2013

      It’s interesting to see the worlds of agile, scrum, and dev work their way into the daily vocabulary of the modern DBA. It’s a brave new world. I find that people who don’t like scrum or agile either weren’t doing it right, or don’t have the discipline for it.

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2013 by in Career Skills.
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