The Five Rs of an Effective Debrief: Part Three of Three

How to use fighter pilot techniques to put on better meetings.

Who is Running This Show?
The team leader always runs the debrief, even if the team includes members of higher rank. For example, in the Air Force, the flight leader for most missions is a mid-level officer, like a captain. In many cases, this leader will have wingmen flying with him who outrank him, like lieutenant colonels or generals. But during the mission, the general assumes his role as wingman without question. Unless the captain suggests a plan or tactic that will either run them out of gas or get them killed, the general will save all of his feedback for the debrief as a way to praise the leader for his good work and to pass on key lessons.

At the outset, the team leader must create an environment where people will provide constructive feedback without fear of reputational risk. By the same token, a senior ranking officer in the flight should reconfirm his commitment to a safe learning environment so that team members feel comfortable speaking openly about what’s working and what can be done better or differently.

Meeting planners should adopt a similar protocol. The event manager or leader must take responsibility for her own events and the corresponding briefings and debriefings. The owner, president, or vice president must support these leaders as wingmen and create an environment where learning and improvement are valued above all else.

This is the third installment in a three-part series on how meeting and event planners can apply fighter pilot principles to their business. In our first article we discussed the similarities between fighter pilots and meeting planners. Both operate in high-speed, rapidly changing environments in which a single mistake can result in devastating consequences. We introduced the concept of the “Feedback Loop,” a battle-tested process that ensures peak performance on every mission. The Feedback Loop mandates that pilots conduct a briefing immediately before each mission and a debrief immediately after landing as a surefire way to accelerate the experience of their teams, reinforce standards, and strive for improvement every day.

The second installment of this series focused on the briefing, introducing the Five Rs of an effective briefing: Roadmap, Results Desired, Room and Logistics, Roles and Responsibilities, and Risks. Leaders can use these as a checklist to prepare for their days and weeks, as well as their meetings and events. Those same Five Rs are used as a briefing guide to clearly and concisely communicate your plan to your team. They answer the key question: “R U Ready?”

In this third and final installment we will look in greater depth at the debrief, the single most important element of the Feedback Loop. The debrief assumes that no pilot has ever flown the perfect mission, and that no meeting planner has ever staged the perfect event. With this understanding, it is clear that we must use the debrief as a tool to accelerate the experience of our people and to ensure that the leaders of our organization get the honest feedback they need to make good decisions.

The Debrief Agenda

Just like we have the Five Rs to run an effective briefing that ask the question “R U Ready?” we have Five Rs to remind us how to run an effective debrief as well. The Five Rs of a debrief ask the question, “R U Learning?”


Debriefs will never happen unless they are planned in advance. This is not because your team doesn’t want to debrief, but simply because we are all so busy that the debrief will easily get brushed aside to take that additional phone call or fit in one more meeting. Fighter pilots create standards for briefs and debriefs to occur. In my squadron, we always brief 90 minutes before takeoff and we always debrief 30 minutes after landing. This happens at the same time, every time.

Meeting planners can schedule debrief sessions in a similar manner. When your team is on site, you might create a standard to debrief 30 minutes after the conclusion of the last segment of each day. By the same token, when you’re back in the home office, you can create a standard of holding a weekly debrief every Friday at 4 p.m. This is your chance to review the progress made against the “Results Desired” that you laid out in the Monday morning briefing.

The duration of your debriefs are mission dependent. Tailor them to correspond to the significance of the event. Where you might only need three minutes to debrief after a small on-site meeting with your client, you might need 30 minutes to debrief on Friday afternoon at the end of a long week. In any case, build debriefs into your schedule and, where appropriate, add them to your calendar. Establishing a regular rhythm to your business will help you and your team identify challenges and develop best practices.

Reset the Tone

However you structure it, the debrief must be a safe place where all team members — regardless of rank or seniority — are free to share their open and honest observations on how they and their teammates performed during the mission.

In the military, we create that safe space by stripping off our nametags and rank insignia at the beginning of the debrief (they attach to our flight suits with Velcro). With the nametags off, we create a learning environment where the sole purpose is to improve performance both as individuals and as a team. Our goal for the debrief is to capture generic lessons learned and roll them into tomorrow’s plan. Where appropriate, we will also disseminate those generic lessons to the rest of our squadron so that we can all benefit.

At the start of the debrief, the squadron leader stand ups and resets the tone. In business, this is most easily accomplished by the leader of your debrief, quickly reminding everyone, “For the next 15 minutes we will be debriefing. This is our chance to learn and get better. I may provide some direct feedback to all of you and I hope you will do the same to me. I know I can’t improve without your honest input.”

A fighter squadron debrief is a sacred learning environment in which pilots strive to improve their own performance and that of the group. Competitive and highly motivated, fighter pilots want to be the best they can be. They also want to be part of the best squadron and the best air force in the world. By embracing the concept of continual improvement and using the Brief and Debrief, meeting planners can foster a similar culture among staff and clients.

Whatever technique you choose as a leader, it is imperative that you send a clear message that the debrief is a safe environment dedicated to learning and improving.

Review Objectives

Write your prior agreed-upon objectives down for all to see. These objectives will limit the scope of the debrief and will prevent a 15- or 30-minute focused learning session from turning into a 45- to 60-minute rambling conversation. By only debriefing against the results desired, you have the opportunity to refocus the group when someone starts to lead you down a “rat hole.”


Now that we’ve reset a safe tone for learning and clearly defined our debriefing objectives, we can let the feedback begin. If our first objective of today’s mission was to make sure that all operations were performed in accordance with our squadron standards, the flight leader might point out that a general flying as a wingman violated the squadron standards by not switching off his master arm switch until 50 miles beyond the target, when the standard is 25 miles. As importantly, this safe debriefing environment allows our newest second lieutenants to benefit from the mistakes and best practices of our senior pilots. This accelerates their experience and reinforces “the right way to do business.”

Meeting planners should approach debriefs with the same ruthless honesty. If one of our objectives for the day was to have zero A/V problems, and the A/V equipment at the luncheon keynote malfunctioned and delayed the presentation, the team member in charge of A/V should own up to the problem, identify the source of the error (e.g. not allowing enough time in advance for the A/V check) and offer up a solution (new standard is that A/V checks occur at least one hour prior to presentations) to prevent recurrences.

Also call out and celebrate successes. If one of your objectives was to have each event of the day’s meeting start within five minutes of the scheduled time, and you hit your objective as planned, stop and celebrate that success. Praise your people for a job well done and then challenge them to ask the question, “Why were we successful?” Maybe it was a matter of having proper signage at all points of egress and color-coded maps to guide conferees directly to their next sessions. Perhaps adding 15 minutes to the schedule compensated for the limited elevator capacity of the venue.

Identify the root causes of successes and failures alike, capture them, and use the knowledge gained to continually improve the performance of each individual and the entire team at tomorrow’s meeting.


When your timekeeper looks at the leader and says, “10 minutes remaining in our debrief,” you can ask her to recap the learnings and next steps to make sure that we are all aligned when we walk out the door.

A typical debrief recap might sound something like this: “Team, overall we ran a great meeting today and the client is very pleased. We learned to create a new standard around A/V that mandates that presenters conduct all A/V checks a minimum of one hour prior to their presentation. We also learned that our new signage and mapping ensured that attendees knew where they were going and arrived on time. Tammy will make sure that those signs are up again tomorrow, and that additional maps are available for any of our attendees who lost them today. Great job, team! Let’s keep working to make this a world-class event for our client.”

In Conclusion

The debrief benefits workers of all experience levels. New hires learn more quickly how the business operates and the role they can play to make it even better. The debrief enables your experienced people to continue to learn and grow, and at the same time it reinforces the standards that make your company successful. Most importantly, the debrief creates a safe environment so that leaders receive the honest feedback they need to keep your company growing and striving for peak performance every day.

Whether you are flying at Mach 2 through enemy airspace or orchestrating a three-day global sales conference in Las Vegas, one error or omission can have devastating consequences. To maximize their chances of success and minimize their chances of failure, fighter pilots have created a Feedback Loop as a mechanism for continual improvement. Using these same tools, meeting planners can incorporate briefing and debriefing into their daily and weekly routines as a surefire way to accelerate the experience of their people, drive better results, and delight their clients.

Anthony “AB” Bourke is the CEO and Founder of Mach 2 Consulting. He is also a highly experienced F-16 fighter pilot who has accumulated more than 2,700 hours of flight time. He has spoken to more than 50,000 people in 11 different countries applying Fighter Pilot Principles to the business world.