Retrospectives: Return to basics

retrospectiveI have learnt a lot from engineering teams, but by far my most valuable takeaway has been the rigor with which they believe in and execute retrospectives. Retrospectives sound a lot like common sense. One would expect that every individual, team and organization does it in one form or another. The first time an engineering team invited me to their ‘retro’ meeting, I wondered what could be spectacularly different. I was so wrong. I learnt that in my many years of being an HR professional, I had never seen folks in HR do a retrospective well (if they did one at all). Given that we are inching towards the close of a decade*, it makes perfect sense that we consider doing one of the greatest retrospectives we have ever done.

In order to excel, it is often important to step out from the endless loop of delivery to reflect on the events gone by and learn from them. Retrospectives help us do exactly that. It is a safe space for the team to discuss what went well, what didn’t, learnings from the time period and action items/ improvements for the next iteration. It keeps the team nimble and continuously improves delivery.

One can choose to do this at any defined frequency. For e.g. for a meetup group we launched, retrospectives were conducted at the end of each event for the first six events. We have now moved to a quarterly frequency. For another project, we did retrospectives at the completion of proof of concept, pilot and now half yearly. I am currently in the process of urging my team to conduct a retrospective for the year gone by. Because of the powerful tool retrospectives are, they can be done at the completion of any landmark moment or even midway. Tech teams usually run this at the end of each sprint meeting or may choose to this at a reduced frequency depending on need/product maturity and a bunch of other factors.

The retrospectives I organize are usually split into three stages. Each team does it differently so while I tell you my method, I’ll share an alternate and you can either pick either of the two or add your own twist.

  1. Pre-Meeting

I begin my retrospectives by usually blocking the participant’s calendars a week in advance (at least). I run the retrospectives on Ideaboardz.com and send the link along with the invite. The board is usually divided into four sections – what went well, what didn’t go well, questions and actions. The team populates the first three sections and votes on inputs by others before we step into the meeting. The section on questions covers ideas that they may have or aspects the team needs further clarity on. The board is anonymous and allows participants to add more sections if they consider absolutely necessary.

Sending the invite and the link a week in advance ensures that the participants have ample time to reflect and prepare for the upcoming meeting.

Alternative: Sometimes pre-work never gets done. To guard for this, you can build in 15 minutes at the start of the meeting for teams to fill the boxes instead of sending this out as pre-work. Depending on how well the team works together, you could go old-school and use a whiteboard or post-it notes instead of an online aid.

Tip:

  • Flex the meeting duration depending on what you are reviewing. If done periodically, 30-45 minutes works well. If you are reviewing the year gone by, you may need a day.
  • Invite just as many people as required.
  1. The Meeting

This is the no-brainer part of the retrospective, yet I must reiterate. Start the meeting by setting context, reiterating that this is a safe space and that all feedback be directed to the action and not the person. This is especially important if your team is doing this for the first time.

Start by covering what went well and then move through the sections. Ensure that the meeting ends only when the outcomes (actions) are agreed upon and have assigned owners.

Alternative: Some teams prefer following a start, stop, continue model for retrospectives. The facilitator can go around the room asking each individual what they think should fall under each of the three categories for the next iteration and take it from there. Similarly, some teams also use a voting system for the actions that emerge.

Tip:

  • Rotate the facilitator of the meeting. This allows for greater participation.
  1. Closure

Now that you have your set of action items and the owners, do remember to circulate the minutes will all those present and anyone else who may derive value from your learnings. No alternates here nor any tips.

While the process of navigating through a retrospective may seem extremely simplistic and leaves you wondering why I wrote a 1000 words when ten would have sufficed, it is often the simplest activities that yield best results. I’ve found each iteration of the projects I am a part of be better as a result of retrospectives. It also helps goal setting meetings be a lot more informed.

It doesn’t matter how you run your retro. What is important is that you do it and you will soon find a method that works best for you and your team.

*Some say that the close of the decade should be the end of 2020 but then why did we celebrate the close of a millennial on 31st Dec, 1999 and not 31st Dec, 2000?

P.S: I can’t believe it’s the start of the year end posts already.

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