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The Power of Debrief – From Chaos to Synchronicity

With the growing complexity and intensity of disaster incidents, both natural and human-caused, the need to continuously review and improve is becoming a strategic and operational imperative for emergency services organisations.

As factors such as extreme weather and continued urban expansion into fire-prone landscapes increasingly converge to create ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) events, the challenge is to build capability and agility to anticipate, and contend with, each new and different scenario.

One avenue, according to research, is through organisational learning – creating the opportunities and conditions for agencies, their teams and individuals to learn and to think differently, critically, strategically and innovatively about their performance and impact.

Agencies continue to invest in developing their people and operational capability, but increasingly recognise the need to do more, according to Dr Christine Owen, an internationally published authority on incident management and researcher for the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and the former Bushfire CRC. In a recent survey, AFAC member agencies identified key professional development areas to support and improve incident management capability for the industry. These areas were how to effectively facilitate debriefs, conduct staff rides for organisational learning, optimise the use of simulations for learning, make decisions under pressure and manage in adversity.

The results of the survey, conducted as a research utilisation initiative, contributed to the launch of a suite of practical evidence-based resources for AFAC members, together with a series of professional development events, designed to maximise use of these learning resources. Delivered in webinar and face-to-face format, the series has been rolled out since April this year in several jurisdictions under the banner of Building AIIMS Capability Roadshow.

One information resource in the series is the Debrief Resource Pack, a collection of three publications: Conducting successful debriefs – research insights into good practice, Conducting successful debriefs – a handbook for facilitators and Conducting successful debriefs – a field guide and aide memoire.

The background research publication provides a comprehensive picture of currently available published literature on debriefing internationally, and a synopsis of Bushfire CRC research conducted over the past 10 years.

The resource also captures some insights and perspectives of the sector through AFAC’s Learning and Development Group, and identifies implications for practitioners.

According to Dr Owen, the project’s research team leader and editor, debriefing provides powerful opportunities to learn, review performance, reframe problems and integrate the outcomes into organisational and operational processes and practices.

“It is a critical part of the cycle of continuous improvement within the emergency management environment,” she explained. And while there has been a recent, positive shift towards its use, for example after action reviews of training exercises, the research shows there is opportunity to enhance experience with debriefing.

“Where well managed, the debrief process, rather than the exercise itself, affords the greatest opportunity for learning to occur,” Dr Owen said.

“Although reflection after a learning experience might occur naturally, it is likely to be unsystematic. And there is the possibility that it may not occur at all, especially where the pressure of events prevents people from focusing on what has just transpired.

“Conducting formal debriefing focuses the reflective processes, both for individual participants and for the group as a whole.”

According to Dr Owen and co-researchers Dr Ben Brooks, Dr Peter Hayes and Debbie Vogel, the research, synthesised from across multiple scientific disciplines, indicates that effective debriefing has a range of benefits for individuals, teams and organisations. Benefits included encouraging deeper processing of knowledge and insights, as well as effective transfer of learning.

The researchers cite a 2014 meta-analysis of research by US academics Scott Tannenbaum and Chris Cerasoli, which showed that debriefing, conducted over about 18 minutes, had the potential to improve operational and team effectiveness by 25% compared to a control group. The meta-analysis was based on 46 research studies of debriefings with an aggregate sample population of 2,136 people.

“Amongst the studies reviewed, it was found that this improvement in effectiveness was similar, regardless of whether they compared teams or individuals, simulated or real settings, group designs or different work domains. The effect of aligning groups or individuals and also improving the structure of the debrief increased the effect size.”

According to Dr Owen, facilitators are critical to the effectiveness of the debriefing process. Facilitators need to be clear about the aims of a debriefing, while applying a structure and focus that maximises individual, team or organisational learning.

“The theory underpinning learning from the debrief is that in order to maintain the developmental intent, it is necessary to develop a climate of critical reflection where it is possible to examine gaps in understanding at the individual, team and organisational levels.”

According to the researchers, the critical elements for facilitating reflection are ensuring the following questions are answered:

  • What was planned?
  • What really happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What can we do better or differently next time?

“While these questions seem relatively straightforward, the role of the facilitator is critical to ensure that participant responses do not remain superficial and participants are able to drill down into their experiences, warts and all,” Dr Owen said. “This is not that easy.”

One study, which examined simulation-based learning, reported that half the participants in a simulation exercise found debriefing to be stressful and intimidating. A similar proportion cited a fear of judgement by their peers.

“Facilitators need to help the group create shared meaning from what happened and then to move into an analytical why-did-this-happen phase,” Dr Owen said. “For some groups this can be quite challenging. The purpose of the clinics in the Building AIIMS Capability Roadshow is to help facilitators hone these skills.”

The practice of debriefing has long been a critical facet of military operations.

According to AFAC’s Director of Operations Support, Paul Turkington, debriefing is fundamental to refining operations as they unfold, and as a post-incident mechanism for continuous review and improvement.

“The more complex and chaotic the incident or emergency, the more critical the need to debrief,” Mr Turkington explained, drawing on his military background and operational experience. In some situations, the method involves ‘live’, rolling debriefings to review and refine operations in pursuit of a successful outcome. Debriefings are also run as a matter of course within a relatively short time after an assignment or incident to ensure learning opportunities are analysed and integrated into relevant organisational processes and operations. In post-event situations, everyone involved in the assignment is included, from logistics and finance through to senior command. “The key is that everyone can and does contribute constructively with a view to improving performance.”

Mr Turkington said debriefing was an essential strategic and tactical tool in complex and chaotic environments.

“Just as an operation in Iraq is complex, uncertain and chaotic, so too is an extreme bushfire such as Black Saturday,” he said.

“While these events are dynamic and uncertain, debriefing is one tool that enables synchronicity – the marshalling of resources into a common framework so you can continue to move forward whilst everything is in chaos.”

For more information, go to www.afac.com.au

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Brenda is Communications Officer at AFAC Research Utilisation. She held a similar role at the Bushfire CRC and moved when the Bushfire CRC’s research utilisation function transferred to AFAC in 2014. You can contact Brenda at Brenda.leahy@afac.com.au