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The Fastest Way to Debrief After a Crisis: A Leader’s Guide

Fastest way to debrief after a crisis Red Cape Revolution

If you lead a team, business, professional organization or even a family, at some point you’ll go through a crisis.

Maybe it’ll be huge, like a storm that impacts your entire community . . . or a virus that attacks the entire world.

Or, in simpler times, it might be that the crisis at hand is just a project that’s gone awry, a client situation that’s blown up, or a budget that just got cut.

Whatever the crisis, you can be sure that you’ll have one, sometime, someday.

I’m sorry that’s the case, but I promise you one thing.

When that happens, you’ll work through it.

You’ll make the best decisions you can based on what you know at the time.

You’ll lead. It’s what you do.

And when the immediate threat has passed . . . or when the short-term crisis is now evolving into the new normal . . . there’s one important thing you need to do.

The best leaders debrief

Yes, good leaders know their people need a break. They know folks need to take time off, and/or not think about the crisis conditions all the freekin’ time.

And great leaders know they themselves need a break, too—after all, they’ve likely been not only calling the shots but are working 24/7 to get through the crisis.

But the best leaders like you know they HAVE to debrief a crisis . . .especially to be ready for the next one.

And if you don’t schedule a debrief NOW, it won’t get done.

Eventually, and the memories of all the little, important details will get blurred over.

That happens no matter whether the crisis passes (like a software bug that finally gets fixed) or we simply move to the next phase (like a pandemic that just won’t quit).

Trust me—it’s no one’s fault that we forget.

It’s the human brain in action.


We THINK we’ll remember it all.

But when the time comes to access that info, we only retain the highlights.

So if we don’t debrief now, we’re back where we started the next time.

debrief after a acrisis or you'll go in circles

Don’t make this debriefing mistake

If you’re ready to debrief after a crisis, your instinct might be to ask each key team person to write down their list of what was done and what they’d do differently.

That sounds great.

But it never works.

First, that effort sounds waaaaay too overwhelming  for most people, even when they weren’t exhausted. The work gets procrastinated, or done in a half-hearted way.

Plus, when you treat a debrief as an individual effort, you miss out on the insights that explode when people share their stories.

Finally, gathering separate emails and lists ends up creating more work in the end, since you, as the leader, need to review and make sense of all the reports.

(And let’s get real-you’re NEVER going to get to that, are you? And then the next crisis comes . . . and you’re scrambling once again.)

There’s a better way.

Here’s the fastest & easiest way to debrief after a crisis

You can debrief your team in five fast & simple steps.  Here’s how (and what to say along the way):

Step 1: Schedule

Right now, schedule a meeting time with the 5-8 people who were most critical to your crisis response.

Pick a date within the next two weeks–the sooner, the better.

To get them focused and engaged, here’s what you can say to your team about this meeting:

“While I know we’re all still recovering from [the efforts you took during the crisis], we need to capture our primary lessons learned before too much time passes and we return to our day-to-day busy lives. Please join me on [date & time] for a high-level debrief session. 

I am considering this investment in time a priority; it will save us time, stress, and energy in the future. Also, we won’t be judging right or wrong; we’ll simply be capturing the facts of what we did and what we now know. Plus, while we could likely talk about this for hours, we’ll keep this debrief session laser-focused. Please arrive ready to share your stories and ideas, and I look forward to seeing you there.”

If some of your team is together but others work remotely, plan the entire meeting to be held remotely—and it’ll keep your in-person folks from overpowering the conversation and will make it easier during step #2 .

Step 2: Record.

Recording your conversation is the secret sauce that makes this process so much easier.

Because you and your team will simply do what they’ve probably been doing for weeks during the crisis–tell their stories.

your team tells stories, debrief after a crisis

(Of course, you’ll guide them with the script in step #3).

If you’re working in a large organization, you probably already have a tool right at hand to record your online meetings. Use what you’re used to. 

But if you’ve never recorded a remote meeting, record your conversation free on Zoom, (a bonus because it also transcribes)  or on a phone-only call-in line from or

If you happen to be meeting in person, just use your smartphone. Most have built-in voice memo apps, or you can download a free one.

As with anything in the tech-related world, a few minutes of testing before your meeting will save you a ton of time.

Step 3: Guide.

Your people are gathered. You’re ready to begin.

But how do you keep the conversation focused as promised?

You don’t need to be the hero. You need to be the guide.

be the guide when you debrief a crisis

A guide shines a light on the steps, but doesn’t get in the way.

Here’s how you set up your role as the guide (script):

“Thank you all for your being here right now, and for all the work you’ve been doing as we recover from [crisis/event/project].

Today, we’re going to invest a little bit of time to capture our memories and lessons from this crisis, before too much time passes.

To help make it efficient, I’m going to record our conversation and have it transcribed outside. That way, we can just get our stories captured quickly now and look back on them later.

My goal here is just to listen, and I’ll ask that we consider this a no-judgment zone. If we made mistakes, let’s just get those stories captured.

I’ve got a series of questions, and I’ll ask each person to take 2-3 minutes to answer each question. Will someone be our timekeeper? [Since you’ll be focusing on listening, ensuring the recording is continuing, and paying attention to your team, give someone else permission to call time.]

Any questions before we get started? [Stop and listen!] Okay, we’re recording.”

Start the recording, and state your name, the date and the subject: “Today, we’re debriefing on our recent efforts around [crisis].”

Ask one question at a time, and ask each person to state their name before they take 2-3 minutes to answer.

Here are the questions to guide your conversation as you debrief after a crisis:

  • What’s the one thing you personally are proudest of during this event?
  • What’s the one thing that surprised you most during this event?
  • If you had a time machine, what’s the one thing we control as a team that you’d go back and do differently?

If you have time, you can ask:

  • What questions do we have of ourselves for the future?
  • What else do we not want to forget?

As a guide, your job is to keep listening and stay neutral.

Your job at this time is ONLY to capture stories–not to judge or fix them.

(If you really can’t be objective as the guide, then hire a coach or outside facilitator –someone with deep experience in listening and staying neutral. Then, you become a regular participant, speaking when it’s your turn.)

No matter how juicy the conversation, hold your commitment to the end time you stated.

Oh, and be sure to press the stop button on your recording, and save, save, save!

Step 4. Transcribe.

It’s easier than ever to get recordings transcribed. My favorite tool is, but you can use Rev or even hire a professional on Upwork or another freelance site.

Sometimes, you’ll get what you need from a free service, but paying for a transcription is small compared to the cost of the time saved to capture these valuable lessons.

After all, if you gain one great insight from this conversation, it’ll save you ten times that in time, energy, and money in the future.

And note–don’t ask someone internally to create your transcription unless it’s work they do every day. The technology for transcription today is fast and easy but only for those who do it all the time. Asking your intern or assistant to transcribe the recording may seem cheap but believe me, it’ll take weeks, not days. Leave it to the professionals.

Step 5: Review.

Within a week of getting your transcribed document, give it a read.

But just you, as the leader, alone.

A transcription of a two-hour conversation won’t take two hours to read. You’ll probably zip through it in less than 30.

Take a highlighter, and mark the themes and issues that came up multiple times.

Or, copy and paste all the text into a word cloud generator (just search the google for one), and you’ll get something that looks like this:

(That’s the word cloud from this article)

The most mentioned topics are the priorities that need to go on your calendar to address in depth before the next crisis.

Now you know where to start.

They may not be specific tactics.

In fact, it’s likely you’ll see trends of people sharing how they felt: unorganized, confused, unclear, etc.

Pick three of the biggest issues, and block an hour of your time in the next week to think about them more and map out some actions to change that for next time.

But just three.

(For more on what to do when you have too many priorities, read my article here.)

Everything else gets the Frozen strategy for now–let it go, let it go.


Because you need some rest–and your team does, too.

Want help planning or facilitating your next crisis debrief? Need to get your team–or even yourself–refocused after a business disruption? I’d be honored to help. Email me and let’s talk.

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