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From Ice Drills to Idea Mills: How Mistakes Can Become a “Miracle.”

In the iconic movie "Miracle," Coach Herb Brooks puts his underperforming team through rigorous drills following a disappointing game. His message was clear: "You don't want to work during the game? No problem, we'll work now." The grueling post-game session proved to be a turning point, teaching the team that the path to victory required collective responsibility, discipline, and ongoing effort.

Much like Coach Brooks' ice drills served as physical conditioning for the team, debriefing mistakes serves as mental conditioning for your corporate team. It's not a punitive measure but an invaluable practice for growth, innovation, and success. Last week, we learned from NASA about how to “Fail forward.” Let’s take that one step further and examine how to consistently use debriefs to strengthen our teams

The Accelerator for Innovation

By fostering a culture of debriefing, your team is mitigating future errors and enhancing its ability to innovate. This starts with a foundation of trust and psychological safety. When teammates become accustomed to dissecting failures after the fact, they become agile in their thought processes overall. They will be able to see a complex web of alternative solutions and are primed to anticipate new outcomes. Not only will debriefs become more productive and insightful over time, but people will begin to recognize new avenues to try, even in the moment. 

Two practical ways to make your debriefs better:

Storying the Slip-Up

Sometimes, the bare facts of a mistake miss the full story. Get into the habit of turning the mistake into a narrative. Whenever a mistake or failure occurs, have the lead craft a detailed story that covers the events leading to the mistake. Print out this narrative and share it with the team, turning it into a communal case study ripe for analysis and learning. Pass out colored pens and spend some time marking up this case study, looking for any themes or points of interest. Such a practice provides the dual benefit of in-depth understanding and collective wisdom. As the team members annotate and dissect the narrative through their unique vantage points, everyone gains insight into how to handle similar situations differently.

What, So What, Now What: The Three-Step Debrief Model

I’ve sat through many debriefs that fell flat. It seems that we all knew we were supposed to talk about what just happened, but either no one really knew what to discuss, or we all just felt this was obligatory and weren’t really motivated to go through with it. 

Or, have you ever been on a team where debriefing is not the norm, and then, out of the blue, your boss wants to debrief the one thing you were responsible for? The anxiety you’re feeling might be warranted in that case!

Trust and Psychological safety plays a big part in a  healthy debrief. If I know that on my team, it’s OK to make mistakes and the people on my team have my back, I will be more receptive to talking through mistakes. Forming a clear system for debriefing is a great way to diffuse any potential anxiety.  We don’t want that “out of the blue” scenario mentioned above, and building a clear, simple debrief into every project is a great way to build this into your culture.


Here’s a simple way to do just that: 

"What, So What, Now What" model for debriefing.

What: Lay out the facts. What actually happened? Who participated? What were the consequences? 

So What: Analyze the impact. Why did this happen? What were the mitigating factors? What did we miss? What have we learned?

Now What: Generate actionable steps. What can we celebrate? What will we do differently next time?


This straightforward model guides the conversation, ensuring it is not just a lamentation of mistakes but a proactive pathway to improvement and innovation. It also provides a simple guide to write down and save these debriefs for future reference. 

Prime Your Team for Success

We often hear the phrase, "Practice makes perfect." While perfection is an elusive goal, practice—or, in this case, consistent debriefing—does make progress. Like Coach Brooks drove his players to become a better team, instilling a 'mental conditioning' culture through debriefs will turn your team into a resilient, agile, and innovative force.

By embracing the discipline of debriefing, you're not just avoiding future mistakes; you're paving the way for future innovations. And remember, with Instill’s AI-driven platform, you can monitor your culture's vital signs like trust, psychological safety, and innovation more effectively than ever. We'll help you measure, build, and advance a culture that thrives on learning, just like the best athletes, artists, and, yes, even hockey players do.

Happy debriefing! 🌟📈🚀


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