The Life Changing Magic of Project Debriefs

On a visit to London, my friend – who is raising her first toddler – confessed that every night she and her husband, “put our son to bed, pour a glass of wine, and discuss how we ruined his life today.” While the comment came across a little harsh and sarcastic (and quite British), their nightly reviews actually sound like a smart approach to parenting.

Later at the airport, I found myself reading Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and paused on her approach to throwing out clutter. Kondo encourages her readers to thank objects out loud for the value they provided. Even if it’s something along the lines of “thank you, dress that’s too small, for teaching me to not buy from the sale rack without trying things on…”, Kondo finds a lesson and closure. Then, she throws the dress into the donation bin and moves on.

Whenever finishing something, be it a work project, the discarding of excess, or a long day spent chasing a 2 year old around the house, try to take some time to debrief. It doesn’t matter if the project/purchase/day went particularly well; there’s always knowledge to harvest.


At my agency, we try to debrief after every project. We’re looking for opportunities to learn, and debriefing often brings out the following:

Making sure we all understood what happened – Sometimes things occur that affect one team member but go on unseen by everyone else. The debrief helps us identify why one person thought the project went great (client barely asked for any design revisions!) while another thought it was stressful (same client disappeared when we urgently needed approvals!). The debrief helps us uncover a more well-rounded version of the project experience.

Realizing bad experiences weren’t actually that bad – Sometimes a conversation that begins with trepidation takes a 180 turn, and the whole team realizes things weren’t as bad as we thought. We can feel stressed when we’re under a tight deadline and, without the recap, that can persist as our memory of the entire project. Taking time to debrief on what went well keeps us motivated and unifies the team. And, of course, if the whole project went perfectly, we take a moment to appreciate it and acknowledge a job well done.

Improved decision making for next time – Since many of my agency’s website and design projects have similar processes, the debriefings help us identify our strengths and weaknesses. We know what roads to take next time. We know what red flags could delay the project. This evaluation leads to better scope documents, estimates and planning on the next project, and smoother work overall.

We didn’t have an institutionalized process for debriefing when I joined the team, but many project management websites have tips for best practices. We were able to standardize the process very quickly.

First, I created a survey to send the clients at the end of the project. We want to hear how things went from their point of view. It is similar to the standard Questions/Comments/Complaints survey one might get from a restaurant or hotel. We also use this survey to make sure the client has everything they need. Do they understand how to update their website? Do they know how to find copies of all their files? Are they ready to move forward on their own?

Once the client responds, we get the whole project team together. We review the clients’ feedback. We compare the amount of hours the project took against our original estimates; we discuss the discrepancies – good and bad. Then, we go around the room and have everyone say what they thought worked well and what was challenging about the project. It sometimes can devolve into complaining (“the client never responded to my emails!”), which may have its own therapeutic value. Overall though, we always pull out a few areas to improve the next time a similar situation arises.

After that, I pull together both the quantitative data (amount of hours spent on project against estimate) and the qualitative feedback from clients and team, and compile it into a Lessons Learned PDF for our records. This provides closure; we’re all free to move on to the next project, knowing that the information is there for reference if needed.

Ultimately, debriefing is about taking a moment to focus on future improvements. Acknowledging feedback (either by saying it out loud or writing it down) leads to purposeful learning.


This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.