Debrief to win book cover

Debrief to Win: How to Improve as a Crew and Individual

Robert “Cujo” Teschner, former Air Force F-15C Eagle Fighter Weapons School Instructor and F-22 Raptor Squadron Commander authored a compelling book titled “Debrief to Win.” His book examines the precepts of identifying the root causes behind why a team achieved or failed to achieve mission success and then changing a plan, policy, or procedure to improve future performance.

Many of the principles Cujo shares with companies and teams as founder and CEO of the Vmax Group are valid for sports officials. The military uses the vernacular “debrief” to describe a post-mission evaluation. In the officiating world, we use the term “postgame.”

What is a Debrief?

According to Cujo, “A debrief is the process of constructively evaluating the quality of the decisions everyone on the team made from planning through execution, in relation to the objectives the team set out to achieve.”

An effective debrief builds cohesive teams and drives future improvement. Cujo adds we should “walk out of the debrief with a crystal-clear understanding of how to succeed the next time we find ourselves in the same circumstances.” Here are a few principles from his book that might be helpful the next time you conduct a postgame review.

Psychological Safety

Cujo defines psychological safety as “the freedom to express truth without fear or negative consequences.” Unfortunately, our culture seems to be addicted to the gruesome sport of blame and shame (thanks social media!).

As a result, we tend to hide our failures and devise excuses when we fail to meet standards. Cujo explains “debriefs can be painful because they require us to be truthful in front of our teammates. This is what makes psychological safety so critical.

There is a value to knowing the truth.” Laura Delizonna, Stanford University, reveals “psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off.”

A Culture of Humility and Personal Acceptance of Responsibility

Psychological safety promotes a culture of humility and personal acceptance of responsibility. Without this optimistic culture, constructive debriefs are impossible.

We’ve all worked with toxic colleagues that consistently derail any attempts to be transparent and honest. If this is the case, the debrief may have to be conducted at a different time without the impertinent teammate. Cujo appropriately recognizes this dynamic when he states, “Universal buy-in is obvious; you won’t succeed if only some people play by the rules. Either you are all in…or in the way.”

Accountable Leadership

Just as psychological safety is paramount to debrief success, effective leadership is just as valuable. Accountability and awareness start at the top. Cujo says teams need “leaders who are credible enough to be trusted and humble enough to admit when they screwed up.”

A good leader will model healthy behavior through personal example, offering the first transparent comment. The debrief leader is a discussion facilitator, not a dictator. A veteran official will likely recognize performance gaps, but instead of immediately pointing them out and unilaterally providing feedback, he/she should dialogue with the team, encouraging them to comment and provide observations, so they can corporately diagnose and address issues.

Structure the Debrief to Standards and Objectives

From my experience, the problem with a typical officiating debrief is it almost always lacks structure and is often random. In an unstructured debrief that lacks a defined methodology, strong personalities have a tendency to dominate and only mistakes are identified and discussed without determining root causes.

The postgame may turn into a mini-court trial in which errors are called out and explanations are judged. In comparison, an objectives-focused debrief follows a proven methodology and centers on the achievement of specific objectives.

These objectives should be precise, measurable, and should clearly lead to team success. In the debrief, the team is then able to compare results with the stated objectives.

Examples of Football Officiating Objectives

I’ve listed a few (of many) objectives relevant to the gridiron: correct physical position (related to a mechanics manual); proper observation of assigned coverage area(s); effective interaction with coaches, players, and spectators; accurate clock and down management; correct penalty enforcement; awareness of the number of players on the field, player numbering, and formations; and correct forward progress determination and goalline coverage.

When listing relevant objectives for your sport, it may be helpful to consider tangible and foundational components that promote success. As a rule of thumb, if the crew accomplishes objectives, outcomes will be positive.

Reconstruct the Truth of What Happened

A successful debrief requires precision “truth data.” Before we can determine the “why,” we must agree on the “what.” The reconstruction step accurately captures all events including individual perspectives of what happened because we will often have our own understanding or version of reality.

The goal is to arrive as a team at the truth of what actually occurred before we deconstruct the event. If there is a video record of the contest, it will make reconstruction easier.

Cujo advises “this is an important step and the team needs to spend significant time on this before moving on.” During this step, the team must avoid the temptation to dive into explanations or event deconstruction.

Identify Contributing Factors and Root Causes

This is the “guts” of the debrief process. The crew must determine the gap between actual (what happened) and desired (what I wanted to happen) performance, and then ask WHY. The team must now answer a series of fundamental questions related to the objectives: Ask “why” or “why not” (while restating the objectives).

For example, “Why was the crew not aware Liberty snapped the ball with 12 players on the field?” Keep asking “why” (these will be Contributing Factors) until any further inquiry will not result in an actionable solution. The answer to the final “why” question will be the Root Cause.

A Root Cause could be the result of human error (failure to execute in accordance with objectives or failure to make correct decisions) or process error (plan, policy, or procedure). Most officiating errors are human errors, but sometimes procedures (i.e., mechanics manuals) must be amended to provide the crew with the best chance to succeed.

Determine Associated Fix Actions

If the team members can’t walk out of the room with a clear understanding of tangible ways to improve performance, the debrief was unproductive. Individuals or teams should have an actionable way-ahead (something to do) to avoid a future mistake or to repeat a positive outcome.

Determine Root Causes of Success as Well as Failure

Cujo emphasizes “The debrief is where we celebrate our victories as well as learn from our failures. We do this in order to build cohesive teams and improve moving forward. The leader should be quick to praise, taking extra steps to recognize superior performance. Everyone should understand not only how, but why the great work that was done achieved success. This methodology validates and verifies the successful activities. Other team members can learn how to replicate success.”

The Debrief Continues during Subsequent Weeks

The crew should not limit the debrief to immediately after the game in the official’s dressing room. In many cases, accurate reconstruction requires video review, which helps provide the necessary “truth data.” In the past year many of us have incorporated video conferencing in our routines, and this may be helpful in conducting comprehensive and beneficial debriefs.