DeBrief without Finger-Pointing or Blame

Image Source: aastock/ Used with permission.

Image Source: aastock/ Used with permission.

A friend of mine recently emailed and asked for help with a debrief. Her organization had scheduled a fundraising event that didn't succeed. In fact, the organization ended up cancelling the event because not enough tickets sold to hold it successfully.

My friend, a good leader, wanted to get to the bottom of why it didn't succeed without blaming. She sought understanding so that the team could move forward successfully. She asked if I could recommend any resources.  

Some Great Books I Recommended:

  • Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Life and Work One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny
  • Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni
  • Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide for Leaders, Managers, and Facilitators by Patrick Lencioni

Here are a few key things I have learned from these resources:

  1. Start with self evaluation – Before the debrief conversation, give your team some questions to consider before your meeting. Some people process things slowly or need some time to reflect on how to articulate their thoughts. Self evaluation before the conversation gives them this time. Self evaluation also encourages people to reflect on their own role and to take responsibility for their part in the event's success and failure.
  2. Build Safety: At the outset of your conversation, start out by building safety. (See Crucial Conversations first couple of chapters for a good description of ways to do this). People won’t speak openly and honestly if they don’t feel safe. If people feel like what they say is going to be used against them in some way, they hold back.
  3. Establish Mutual Purpose – remind everyone and let them remind each other of what they want and the purpose they have in common. “We all love our organization and want to serve our clients successfully” and “We’re all on the same side here,” for examples.
  4. What Went Well:  Begin the event evaluation with a discussion of what went well.
  5. What Would Have Been Helpful (Missed Opportunities):  When discussing what didn’t go well, encourage each person to talk about what she could have done differently or what would have been helpful without pointing fingers. In other words, encourage people not to say "it would have been helpful if my colleague had..." but "It would have been helpful if I had allowed enough time to implement the social media campaign. What could each participant do differently?
  6. Consider an outside facilitator. It is so easy for participants to become defensive. Consider an outside facilitator who was not involved, who can ask questions and probe for answers without feeling defensive (or accusatory) and can steer the conversation in a constructive fashion.
  7. Sincerely Thank Everyone Who Participated:  Each person who engages in the discussion adds to what Kerry and Patterson call the "collective pool of meaning." All comments in a discussion add to what you know and understand which will help you avoid the pitfalls that happened this time.

Moving Forward:

  1. Clarify expectations and desired outcomes:  Moving forward, make sure each party knows what the ideal outcome is (have the team describe the desired end). Make sure your expectation is not described in vague words like "We want our event to be a success," but "We want 225 people to purchase tickets; $65,000 in sponsorship by 8 weeks before the event; 90 silent auction items with a value of $20,000 or greater solicited," etc.
  2. Specify Team Member Roles: Articulate what specific role each person on the team will play to create the desired end. (0% of our ticket goal will be met by 3 weeks before the event; 45% of our tickets will be sold by 5 weeks before the event; invitations mailed 8 weeks before.... Our social media campaign will begin 5 weeks before the end with 2 Facebook posts each day... I find it helpful to work backwards from the desired outcome to what needs to be accomplished by when to achieve that desired end.

Most of the time when an organizational event fails to come together, there is enough blame to go around. It's a team failure. Very seldom is one person along responsible for disappointing results. When an event (or other project fails), treat it as an opportunity to learn more about your team and what it takes to succeed by looking at the failures in a constructive manner.


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