Project management: To debrief or not to debrief

Project management: To debrief or not to debrief

Many project managers may view the end of a project as a perfect opportunity to debrief, while others are onto their next project with very little time dedicated to debriefing. Some swear by the debriefing process and others simply bypass it altogether. Let's take a look at the process, its purpose, the benefits and, yes, the drawbacks.

The debriefing process is conducted once the project activities have come to a close and the project is complete. It allows for transparent feedback by any/all participants in a non-stressful environment.

Reasons for team debriefing sessions

The purpose behind project debriefing is to allow the project team an opportunity to share thoughts, experiences and ideas in a more relaxed environment. It offers a means to evaluate whether the project has met all the requirements and stayed within scope. It helps in identifying issues that may have occurred as well as aids in determining possible root causes.

It also assists leaders in isolating conflicts or other problems, evaluating the team's cohesiveness (without singling anyone out), and in the processes works towards improving team dynamics for future projects.

Finally, debriefing provides a chance to determine whether the processes were successful and identifies which things need to change. Ultimately these sessions provide closure for the project and a chance to celebrate individual and team accomplishments.

[ Related story: Project management glossary ]

Who should be in attendance

The project manager, project sponsor(s), whenever relevant, and preferably the entire project team should attend. This provides an opportunity for all individuals to have input and share their thoughts and suggestions for improving team and project performance going forward.

What broad bucket topics should be covered?

The debriefing process should cover the project goals and whether they were met, things that may have gone wrong, if anything, and why (this should not become a blame game), as well as what things need to change to reduce or stop any issues in the future. It's important to also identify innovative opportunities for improvements, and of course, highlight any accomplishments. Don't forget to voice/show appreciation to all participants and team members.

What shouldn't be covered

There are topics that should be excluded from the debrief, including who didn't get along with who Conflict-based issues shouldn't remain unaddressed at the end of a project, nor argued around others on the team. These issues should be handled behind closed doors. It isn't appropriate to discuss publicly who made mistakes because blame isn't constructive, especially in front of others. It can lead to grudges and resentment. Try to keep in mind debrief meetings should be about being constructive in a project and business sense; any personal gripes should not be aired.

[ Related story: The risky side of project management ]

Project Management chart on the debriefing process

Project management debrief pros

A properly conducted post-project debriefing allows teams to talk with one another in a relaxed setting and learn from one another without time pressures. It also provides a way to set opportunities or continuous improvement in motion. As lessons are learned and knowledge applied you will create a more powerful, cohesive, high-functioning team that has better interaction and communication. Here are some other pros to this essential step in the project management process.

  • Provides a chance for team members to share past experiences and new ways of doing things that could be beneficial in the future.
  • Provides a mechanism to identify risks previously not identified.
  • Offers actionable lessons learned.
  • Provides a chance to document findings that can be referred to in the future.

Project management debrief cons

Are there any? If the objective is to learn and improve processes, techniques, behaviors and service delivery, the question to ask is how can it be a waste of time?

While it may seem time-consuming, and a project manager may be tempted to skip this step or race through it, the lessons learned, and benefits create an argument against bypassing the debriefing process.

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