Or, why you desperately need to fix your retros
A lot of management and leadership advice these days boils down to improving communication within your team or organisation. It sounds like straightforward advice.
But the real question is: how exactly are we meant to improve communication?
Communication is a complex beast. It involves every part of the human experience at work right from how someone is feeling on a particular day all the way up to the overarching structure of the organisation.
If it’s that complex, where do you even begin?
I believe the absolute most valuable tool in a team’s toolbox for improving communication is the “retrospective”, otherwise known as a “retro”. You can call it whatever you like: an in-flight review, a hot wash, a debrief, or a weekly team meeting. However, the practice of coming together as a team to specifically examine how you work as a team is one of the most powerful practises you can implement. And it will lay the foundation for vastly improving how your team communicates.
Why is the retro so valuable?
1. It gives the team the opportunity to have conversations that don’t happen naturally in the course of work
The conversations that happen naturally on teams tend to be at two extremes. At one end they’re fully centred around work. The types of conversations that happen when asking a colleague for input on some work, when providing an update in the stand up or when we’re trying to solve problems together. Then at the other end they are fully centred around the social side of work. What did you do on the weekend? Have you got any after work commitments? How are you going with whatever is happening outside of work at the time?
But there’s a whole middle ground of conversations, and these are exactly the types of conversations the retro was designed to draw out. This includes topics like: Is this system working for us? Does this process have the outcome we intend for it to have? Are all these quality checks improving quality of our output or just draining more time than they're worth?
If you’re not having a retrospective, it can be very unnatural to raise these kinds of issues. You don’t really want your team questioning whether a quality process is effective right in the middle of running the tests and trying to get product out the door. People are trying to get work done. The retrospective creates a perfect forum to have those conversations.
2. It surfaces common themes that team members might be experiencing
The second benefit of a retro is that it brings the whole team together to discuss what is and isn’t working. This enables more clarity about which issues are truly trending issues and what might be a one-off. And it also highlights issues that might be experienced across the whole team but no one has yet thought to mention because they thought it was just something that mattered to them.
Usually if something is wrong on a team, leaders will find out because one or maybe two team members come and talk to them. It can be really hard to judge how much of the team is thinking the same way.
But when you raise those kinds of conversations in an open forum with the whole team there, you can get a real sense of how pervasive the issue is. And it might also encourage people to speak up if they've been experiencing that issue, but didn't think it was worth raising, but another colleague does rate.
3. It provides a way to collaborate on solutions to challenges the team is facing
Don’t worry - retrospectives aren’t all about getting bad news or hearing what’s wrong on the team. The third benefit of retros is all about problem-solving. The retro provides a forum in which to collaborate around solving the team’s challenges. These solutions may respond to issues, or simply look at building on an idea to improve the team.
The retrospective can become an ideation session to identify important challenges worth solving for the team and to develop solutions to those challenges. The team can work together, drawing from their prior experience, what they've seen works elsewhere, their own creativity, and ideas they've been experimenting on in their own time. And they'd be able to use the retro to bring these ideas forward and get buy-in from their colleagues and actually start using some of them to solve the problem.
Using your retro to come up with solutions can go a long way to avoiding your team's whole way of working being constructed by outsiders to the team. Usually teams adopt a work operating system from external resources, such as adopting a particular Agile methodology from books or blogs, or having one person design a system based on their prior experience and knowledge. Unfortunately team operating systems aren’t just “lift and shift” as many organisations learned when trying to implement the Spotify model.
4. It enables teams to adapt whatever brand of “agile” or “ways of working” to fit the team’s specific context and culture
Benefit three leads well into benefit four. The retro becomes a routine that helps your team design and adapt their systems and processes to be fit for the context and the culture that is actually present on the team. So rather than taking a methodology off the shelf, like Scrum, or XP, or Shape Up, your retrospective enables you to implement parts of those methodologies and then inspect and adapt how well those methodologies are working for your team and make changes.
By designing solutions to common work problems as a team, the team develops their own way of working that responds to the team’s specific context and culture. And this is how you will develop your own way of working as a team that will make you most effective. This methodology will be relevant to the people you have on your team, the context in which you operate and the culture that exists in your team.
5. It builds a sense of team while actually getting work done
The fifth benefit of retrospectives is that it gives you an opportunity to do a bit of team building and increase the sense of team amongst your employees while actually getting work done. So by having a regular, regular retrospective, you enable the team to come together to pull their heads out of the day-to-day minutia of getting work done and spend a little bit of time together as a team, creatively solving problems.
I believe a retro is far more useful than the one-off team building or strategy days that we usually rely on to increase connection between our team members. For starters, the retro is more closely related to work so it feels a lot less disconnected than the one-off events can tend to feel.
Many team building activities tend to centre around completely non-work-related activities, things like personality tests, or some fun games that are quite momentary and don't have a long-term impact on how the team operates together. Instead, the retrospective is all about improving your day to day work, while also being a change in pace, format and often location compared to the usual day-to-day work. This is especially true if you mix up your retro format and location from time-to-time and allow for social elements as part of your retro agenda.
But my retros don’t have those benefits?
As you read through all those benefits, I will wager there’s many people who are asking themselves, "We do retros (or have tried retros before) and we aren’t getting all of those benefits!"
And to these leaders I would say don’t worry!
Typically leaders and teams aren’t given adequate tools to actually run an effective retrospective. Unless you’ve seen a really effective retro before, you may not know the ingredients and recipe that will get the above results from your retro.
Few of the agile guidebooks out there do a really great job of explaining exactly how you're meant to run a great retro that gets all of the benefits I've just listed and more.
If you want to find out what is missing from your retros, I have put together a short quiz that takes literally 90 seconds to complete. So if you're feeling like your retros might be broken, jump over to wizardinnovationlabs.com/retro and you'll find the quiz there. You can fill it out and identify why your retro may not be reaping the benefits that a great retro really can reap.
Looking for more ways to uplift your team's performance? Visit wizardinnovationlabs.com to download the High Performing Teams Playbook and unlock a new level of performance on your team today.