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The Art of the Team Debrief: 4 Questions to Ask After Every Event

November 22, 2021
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Bill Zimmer

Planning and marketing an association conference or trade show takes a lot of effort. You work around the clock for months to meet the expectations of your attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors. So, when the event is finally over, the last thing most people want to do is look back and talk about everything that happened.  

But that’s exactly what you should do!

Call it a debrief, retrospective, analysis, or whatever makes sense to you. As long as you hold a meeting that includes every team member who had a significant role in the project, you’re doing the right thing.

Think of this opportunity as primary research about the way your organization operates. The goal is to talk about what worked and what didn’t. That way, you can learn from it all and improve your collective performance next time.

How It Works

There are a million things to consider when getting your team together for a debrief. Here are two important conditions to keep in mind before you begin.

  1. Time: Depending on the size and significance of the project, you may want to set aside anywhere from one to four hours to hold the debrief. But don’t just spring a random meeting on your team.
    Surprises are not a great way to evoke radical candor. Which is exactly what you need in a debrief—an environment where everyone feels that they can speak truthfully without judgement.  
    Instead, tell your team at the beginning of each engagement that you’ll be hosting a debrief after it’s complete. And give them ample time to prepare for the debrief so that the conversation is productive. Be consistent and you’ll start to build a culture of learning and improvement.
  2. Vibe: Attitude is a reflection of leadership. So make sure to set a confident but approachable tone for the discussion. If you don’t, people won’t talk, and you won’t get to the root of any problems.  
    Before the debrief meeting begins, share an agenda with the four key questions listed below. Make sure everyone understands that this will not be a forum for complaining. It should be an open, honest session with a goal of making the team perform better in the future.

Four Questions to Ask Your Team

There’s no perfect way to guide the debrief discussion, but it helps to have some guideposts in place.  

Here are the four essential questions you can use to guide your first debrief. Feel free to evolve this list, based on your own team and situation.

  1. Did we achieve our objective?  
    Don’t gloss over this one. Revisiting the objective reminds your team how important it is for clear goals to be set in the first place.  
    It also shows how much everyone should care about meeting expectations. If you exceeded your goals, celebrate that for a moment. Your team will appreciate the encouragement.  
    If you didn’t achieve your objectives, acknowledge it. Discuss the reasons why that might have happened. Often, falling short is a result of the goal not being S.M.A.R.T. from the very beginning. As the leader, that’s on you to improve upon for next time.
  2. What did we do right?
    It’s easy to talk about the things that went wrong. But it’s just as important to recognize what’s not broken. Focusing on the positives will excite your team and keep them optimistic.  
    Be sure to document and communicate what worked well so you can continue to be successful. A great way to do this is to develop a case study that includes measurable results. Putting yourself through the rigor of creating a case study helps you hone in on the real takeaways of the great work you did together.  
  3. What did we do wrong?
    Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  
    No matter how diligently you prepare, there will always be unforeseeable circumstances with planning and marketing an annual meeting or association event.  
    However, it’s important to determine if some of those unexpected hiccups could have been anticipated or prevented. What staff skills or expertise would have improved the performance of your team? What strategies would you have put into place if you could do it all over again?
    Ironically, sometimes the best plan moving forward is to stop doing something.
  4. What should we do next time?
    This last question is critical. It allows you to put your learnings into action.  
    At the end of the debriefing, make sure your team has codified all of the updated process and improvements. This should go beyond brainstorming.  
    You should aim to develop a strategic event framework that clearly outlines the long-term vision and purpose of your event. And make sure that includes a thorough understanding of your audience and their motivations for attending.  
    If you can’t clearly articulate these points, consider investing resources in strategic planning and research to give you empirical evidence to drive your event strategy with more confidence. This will accelerate the development of the experience design and marketing messaging that can help increase attendance at your next event.

Take the Lead  

One of the best ways to ensure future success is to hold team debriefings after major projects are complete. This will allow you to develop more effective and efficient project plans, event strategies, and marketing campaigns in the future.  

If you’re uncomfortable or unable to effectively facilitate the conversation, don’t let that stop you from having a debrief. Bring in a trusted, third-party moderator. They will provide a neutral perspective and can help you navigate difficult personalities or hot-button issues. Plus, the moderator can ensure you examine all aspects of the event from an objective point of view.

And remember, if you do it right, the debrief is really the first step in the planning of your next successful event, tradeshow, or conference.