Quick Take: What common practice has been found to increase team performance by 20%?

When you reach a milestone on your project, program or implementation effort, do you gather your team for a reflective review of your experience to date…or do you skip the lessons learned and move on to the next task?  If you tend to skip the debrief, or do a cursory job of it, you may be missing out on a relatively low-cost source of improved team performance.

In a meta-analysis of 46 studies on debriefs (also called after action reviews or lessons learned), Scott Tannenbaum and Christopher Cerasoli found that when appropriately conducted, debriefs can lead to a 20-25% average improvement in performance.  The authors found performance improvements in the use of debriefs with both teams and individuals.  (Thanks to the Center For Evidence Based Management for sharing this study.) 

WHAT IT IS: The Four Elements of a Debrief  

Based on their analysis, the authors developed the following definition of a debrief:

“Debriefs lead individuals or teams through a series of questions that allow participants to reflect on a recent experience, construct their own meaning from their actions, and uncover lessons learned in a non-punitive environment.”

They indicate that a debrief is comprised four elements, all of which must be present to consider the session a true debrief.  The elements are: 

  1. Active self-learning:  Individuals must participate in reflection and sharing, not simply receive feedback from someone else on their performance or team performance.
  2. Developmental intent:  The focus of the debrief should be on learning and improvement, rather than evaluation.
  3. Focus on specifics:  The debrief should include reflection on specific events, situations or activities, rather than general reflection on strengths or weaknesses.
  4. Multiple information sources:   The debrief should be informed by a variety of perspectives.  This can be satisfied in a team environment by having multiple team members involved in the debrief.   For a debrief with a single individual, the additional source could be the views of an observer or an objective document. For example, if you were debriefing with someone on a presentation they had just delivered, you may have a recording of it, or the perspective of an audience member, in addition to the self-reflection of the individual.

HOW TO DO IT: Success Factors

How you conduct the debrief may also impact the degree of benefits that result from it.  The authors found particularly strong evidence for the impact of an aligned approach, i.e. when the participants, intent and measures used in the debrief were aligned. For instance, if you are conducting a debrief with a team, you should focus on team performance (not that of an individual) and use measures of team performance to inform the discussion.  

However, even when the approach was not aligned in this way, they still found a performance boost from debriefs (see definition above), just of a lesser extent. 

The authors also report some support for the benefit of having an objective facilitator lead the debrief and using a structured approach for the discussion, so that participants could focus on reflection and learning and not the process of the debrief.  Finally, the researchers investigated, but did not find clear evidence related to the benefits of using multi-media aids in the debrief.  

Given this evidence, if debriefs or lessons learned are not an integral part of your project or implementation management repertoire, perhaps they should be?  The benefits are likely worth the time and effort invested.


Tannenbaum, S. I., and C. P. Cerasoli. "Do Team and Individual Debriefs Enhance Performance? A Meta-Analysis." Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 55.1 (2012): 231-45. Web. See here.