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The Planning Commission at Work

The Value of Debriefing

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Many years ago, Lisa was on the planning staff of a regional planning agency. The morning after the initial public meeting for a joint county-municipal comprehensive plan, the planning director called an impromptu staff meeting. "What worked well?" was her first question. She made notes of our responses on a flip chart using a fat blue marker. After five minutes, she moved to, "What didn't work well?" In another five minutes, she asked, "What would you like us to do differently for the next public meeting?"

Debriefing is that it is not just a "gripe session" ... [it] relies on a specific structure.

In 15 minutes, we had a list that summarized our experiences and gave us direction. This simple debriefing process was a valuable technique that empowered Lisa and her fellow staff members to recognize success, recount their frustrations, and agree on new approaches for future work.

Jim's experience with debriefing was somewhat different. When he was on the local planning commission, near the end of each meeting, everyone would look at their watch. One person would move to adjourn, there would be a second, and before the gavel hit the desk we were all outta there. Woe be to anyone who got between the members and the door. At the next meeting it was the same, and nothing ever got any better.

The process of planning commission decision-making requires as much attention as does the decisions themselves. Following up on the meetings and the issues raised is critical -- and in the long-run makes for more efficient and effective meetings. Who knows, with enough debriefing and adjusting, those meetings may even finish early!

Debriefing is a technique of "reflective learning" that can be applied one-on-one or in a group setting. It is frequently used in military, medical, and emergency response situations, where participants use role-playing and simulations of potential events to prepare for circumstances in which decisions affecting life and death must be made quickly. Debriefing enables participants to emotionally process the event and analyze the decisions they made (and their outcomes). This facilitates learning, improving how people respond to future situations.

abstract image of thinking heads around a round tableDebriefing is not critique. An important distinction between the two is the flow of information. In a debriefing, all parties are allowed equal time to give and receive information. This differs from a critique, which is generally a one-way flow of information (as when an instructor provides an evaluation of a student's project).

Another important distinction of debriefing is that it is not just a "gripe session." Debriefing relies on a specific structure of: (1) recounting events -- the what's and the why's, (2) dealing with emotions and feelings, (3) analyzing decisions and outcomes, and (4)thoughtfully reflecting and focusing on future situations or practices.

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photo of the SegedysJim Segedy, FAICP, worked for many years in Ball State University’s Community Based Planning program, providing assistance to more than one hundred communities and many plan commissions (as planning commissions are called in Indiana). He is currently a member of the Edgewood (Pennsylvania) Planning Commission and previously served on the Delaware County (Indiana) Plan Commission.

Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, AICP, is the Associate Director for River Restoration for American Rivers’ Pittsburgh field office. Before moving to Pennsylvania, she spent over a decade as a circuit-riding planner for a regional planning organization serving the western fringe of Metropolitan Atlanta.

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