Do You Debrief “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”?

Photo credit: MacQ via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: MacQ via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

One of the most effective learning techniques that we learned in Naval Aviation was the importance of debriefing every flight. It’s where the majority of learning occurred…only if it was done correctly!

I adapted our standard military debriefs to help me in developing leadership in my scouts when I was a scoutmaster. Many people believe that scouting is all about the outdoors. Yet, it was so much more, as it was all about character development using the outdoors as the learning laboratory.

At the end of each outdoor event, whether it be a few hours in length or a week long, I had all of the boys get together with the senior patrol leader spearheading a discussion on what happened…a debrief.

I gave it a catchy name to be rememberable and kept it simple.   We called it “THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY” Hey, the name had to have some excitement and curiosity so the boys would look forward to leading it!

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The Good represented what went well during that event. We just didn’t identify what went well but specifically why it went well. This provided us with identifying successful elements that we could leverage. We made sure we capitalized on these and incorporated them in future events.
The Bad represented what didn’t go so well. It wasn’t about it being anything wrong. It was just something that had started with positive intent but in execution it failed. We made sure we took emotion out of the equation to “peel back the onion” such that we could see where, why, and how it failed in execution. Again we took the lessons learned and made sure we applied it to our future events.
The Ugly represented just that…something was just plain ugly and we don’t ever want that to occur again! Ugly was usually identified as something that caused a break in the rules, something that was done with negative intent, a safety overlook, or something that caused a meltdown in the team. We made sure that we “nailed down” the root causes of Ugly and identified the lessons to be learned such that “Ugly” wouldn’t raise it’s “Ugly” head on future events. [/message][su_spacer]

Pretty simple process and you can easily apply “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” to any event whether in business, home, organization, or group.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and yet very few organizations take the initiative to find out what went right and what went wrong. Did you debrief the last project you completed, the sale you made or didn’t, or that product you developed? Probably not, as I bet you were just too busy and needed to get on to the next project or responsibility.

The debrief however, is the essential link to learning, sharing, and teaching best practices, and striving for constant improvement. Therefore you should debrief often and not just on the big ticket items but every milestone.

No matter how simple the process is there is one crucial element that will ultimately determine how effective it will be…It all falls on whether the debrief is done in a safe, open, and non-punitive environment! How you as a leader sets the tone will ultimately determine the success of the debrief!

Let’s face it I know you will be “chomping at the bit” to conduct a debrief on a disappointment as you are probably looking for accountability. However, this could be a disaster in the making if not conducted with the right amount of social-emotional intelligence. How you debrief this disappointment can mean the difference between a return to high performance or a downward spiral of failure to your team or team member.

Your credibility as a trusted leader is at stake! So here are some tools to help you “check your ego at the door”;

  • Focus on what’s right not who’s right
  • Allow all ideas to come from everyone’s perspective and not trying to push your idea.
  • Allow creative conflict without attacking
  • Be flexible in finding a blended solution
  • Listen to all points of view with a genuine curiosity.
  • Support a safe environment for open conversation
  • Realize that failure is part of progress and is a part of risk taking
  • Challenge outdated assumptions

I have written a free eBook, How to Conduct an Inspirational Debrief, that goes into delves deeper into this subject with practical suggestions such that you will be able to apply these principles immediately.

Question: How often do you debrief? Will you share an experience where you learned a lesson through debrief that made a positive impact?


David Kaiser
David Kaiser
DAVE is a retired Navy Commander and current CEO and founder of H2H Dynamics, an authentic leadership training and advisory company that focuses on the essential human to human dynamics that determine successful business, team and personal performance. He served as a Naval Officer and Aviator where he flew 46 combat sorties during Desert Storm. He was one of the officers in charge of the Navy and Marine Corps elite Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training program where he was first exposed to human dynamics under extremely stressful conditions. In the corporate sector Dave was the Chief Learning Officer for a major defense contractor where he was responsible for all human performance training for the U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command, NATO, NASA, foreign militaries, and various Fortune 500 companies. He directly applied latest research in the fields of learning psychology, human performance, and neuroscience. Additionally Dave lead a three year research study for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory to determine the most effective training interventions to improve human performance of tactical aircrew members. During this research project he discovered the human performance tool used for NASA’s Astronaut selection for the Space Shuttle program and became one of the few people qualified to use the tool. From this research Dave co-authored two published papers at the Interservice/ Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in 2008 (Best Paper Nominee) and again in 2010.

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  1. A lot of the problem is that people like to tie the good, the bad, and the ugly not to situations or events, but to people that they feel cause them. As long as people and the decisions that people make are taken off the table lessons learned and course corrections work extremely well.

    • Thanks for the comment Melinda. Acting on the findings is where you can discover issues in either the process, people, or the product. Most of my debriefs typically find issues in the process of communication.

    • Acting on the findings is the most critical step, yet the one that is probably missed the most. Thanks for sharing!