Debriefing, learning and accountability processes
Change is a constant.
When we cease adapting to change we lose contact with reality – our strategy gathers cobwebs, our people go to sleep, we lose relevance. The only way to stay connected and working at our edge – and with excellence – is to place a serious emphasis on individual and organisational learning.
This short article offers some practical ideas about how to begin building a learning culture in your organisation.
These kinds of processes support people to:
- take better care of themselves (emotionally and in other ways)
- process and learn from their experience
- share their insights with others
- feed into the development of new ideas, plans and strategic thinking at programme or organisational level
- develop their teams and organisations into a more self-aware and creative, learning systems.
A basic framework: experiential learning
The action-reflection cycle/experiential learning cycle is the basis for a lot of learning-oriented work with adults. It can be depicted in a lot of different ways. For our purposes, let’s say the cycle has four elements:
- Theorising/Learning and
- Planning, which takes us back towards Action… and the cycle continues.
The image below is a slightly freer rendering, but it captures the same essential idea…
The key point is: we can use the idea of ‘action-reflection’ to design effective debriefing and learning processes that begin to enhance our practice and increase our effectiveness.
Questions to work with
Some questions associated with ‘non-Action’ stages of this process are:
- Tell me the story of what happened…
- What were the most significant things that happened?
- How did you feel when…?
- What were the highs and lows?
- What do you feel you did really well? What went less well?
- Why do you think that happened?
- Why did people respond in that way?
- What can we learn from this experience?
- What would you do differently next time?
- What does this mean for our practice going forward?
Application: two practices
- Debriefing at individual and team level (either regularly – or, more usefully, at significant moments)
- Peer review at team level (monthly / 6-weekly / quarterly)
It’s a good idea to encourage people to debrief after significant team/individual events/pieces of work. Ideally, a debriefing time slot should be planned into their schedules at the same time the work is planned. For example, if I was going to run a workshop with a new client on Friday, I might schedule a one-hour debriefing session with a colleague for the following Tuesday or Wednesday. A short gap can allow people time to do some processing on their own – some might prefer more of a gap, others less. If a few people are working in a small team on the same event/process, they could debrief together as soon as the work is done.
(Note: People working in fields such as counseling might require a slightly different approach – a more regular opportunity to debrief with another skilled counselor would be useful.)
Anyone who can listen well can be a good ‘debriefer’… Their job is simply to ask questions, listen with empathy, and help their colleagues to process their experience, make meaning of it, and start to integrate learning into future practice. A fairly simply debriefing process could be guided by three basic questions/prompts and some probes:
- Tell me the story of what happened – what were the most significant moments?
- What did you do?
- What did you do really well? How did you use your strengths/talents/gifts?
- What did you find easy/difficult?
- How did that feel?
- Where the moments when things changed?
- What does all this mean for you and your practice?
- What’s your theory about why this worked out as it did?
- What does this mean for you?
- Is there anything you would have liked to be different? Or to do differently in future?
- What learning emerges from this experience?
- Action steps…
- Are there any immediate action steps you need to take? (calling someone, finishing a report, getting some rest, whatever…)
- How will you apply what you’ve learned?
Peer Review (team level)
Peer review is most appropriate for teams where some creativity and responsiveness is necessary – i.e. there is a lot of potential for learning. Example could include: a programmes team; a management team; a research or design team; a facilitation team.
For this process to work, participants need to do some preparation. If team members are already doing monthly reports these could be tweaked a little to feed into this session.
To begin with, it’s worth setting aside one whole day, and seeing how you go.
Everyone prepares a report and shares it with everyone else a few days before the meeting – this starts getting people thinking, writing, and hopefully, reading. It can be as simple as:
1. Planned vs. Executed work:
- In summary, what did you plan to do this past month/quarter?
- And what have you actually done?
2. Significant moments:
- Of this work, what were the most significant moments for you, and for our organisation?
- What are you proud of, and what went well?
- What well less well, or felt really challenging?
3. Effects and signs of impact:
- What signs of change do you see as a result of this work?
- In what ways did this work contribute to our strategy and goals?
- What would you like to do more of/less of/differently?
- What are your three key insights from this month/quarter?
- What do you want to learn more about in the coming period? (Frame clear learning objectives if possible: e.g. “I want to strengthen my facilitation practice so that I feel more confident facilitating alone” and offer ideas about how you might achieve this: e.g. “by co-facilitating with Thandi and debriefing carefully so I learn how she prepares for and holds the process.”)
- What are your plans for the coming period? (include plans for leave/self-care, and learning, as well as your core work)
The session itself
This is a facilitated process… How it is held will make a significant difference in how quickly people become comfortable with reflecting together, thinking strategically together, and being open to giving and receiving feedback (supporting and challenging each other).
Here’s one simple process design for a team of 8 people (example only):
|09:00||Welcome. Remind people of purpose and process|
|09:10||Warm up: Characterising the past month…
– What has it felt like?
– What’s been most significant?
– Think of an image for it (e.g. a wildly speeding taxi; a sloth; chaos; a beautiful piece of music; etc.)
|09:30||Setting a schedule – give each participant a time slot. How long this is will depend on how many people you have to work with. If there are 8 people, this could be 30 minutes each.
Therefore: 10 minutes each to share highlights from their report (what I’ve done; what I’m proud of; challenges; signs of effects/impact; learnings, intentions); 10 minutes for questions/observations; 10 minutes for feedback and response. People’s presentations need not be exhaustive because people will have read their reports (with some luck and a bit of pressure!).
|14:30||What are the significant themes and issues emerging from these reflections:
· List and discuss
· Make plans/decisions as necessary
This is where the joint strategic thinking and problem-solving happens.
|15:30||Summary: facilitator pulls this together|
|15:45||Reflection on this session; anything we’d like to change/improve?
Set date for next session.
Close at 16:00
For the feedback portion of each person’s session, it’s often best keep things light to begin with. Allow only 2-3 people to give whoever has shared their learnings and reflections one or two pieces of feedback. Ask those giving feedback to stick to completing the following statements:
- What I value about you/your work this past month… (affirming feedback)
- One idea I have for you… (constructive suggestions)
Encourage the person receiving the feedback to write it down. And give them a chance to respond – non-defensively – after they have listened to all three ‘feedbackers’.
As the team grows more experienced, you can encourage more direct and challenging feedback, but starting slowly and non-threateningly is wise… You’re trying to gently modify the culture here; alienating people early on is NOT the goal.
One important rule: Whoever comes, participates! This includes the facilitator. (The only exception might be a recorder/documenter if you assign one.) More than eight people isn’t a workable number if you only have one day, but then most working teams aren’t much larger than that.
Parts of this meeting will be worth recording/capturing… Either because they will be useful for reports (to donors/others), or because they generate learning that has value beyond the immediate participants.
The value of this kind of process is manifold. It gives everyone, in a single day, a snapshot of everyone else’s work. It reinforces the idea that we are all accountable to each other and for achieving our shared goals. It provides valuable material for reporting. It highlights skills and knowledge gaps that you can then plan to fill. And over time it builds a culture of reflection and strategic thinking – and a culture in which people know how to powerfully support and confront each other.
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If you’d like to talk further about these ideas, please feel free to drop me a line!
Cover image credit: Sidharth Bhatia