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Regular Retrospectives

One of the most powerful tools I’ve found for building strong teams has been running safe, regular, fun, challenging, personal and focussed retrospectives. Retrospectives are about the way the team is interacting and the way the work is being done, rather than the work itself, they are private, internal, and for the benefit of the team. Check out the introductory post about making retrospectives safe.

In this 2nd post about retrospectives, I’ll explain why taking time to regularly review the process of work is important and in many way the keystone habit of a happy and productive team. Lock them in the diary and let the rhythm of improvement get your agile toes tapping. 

Regularity allows you to park the issues

When you have a rhythm of regular opportunities to review the way the work is being done, it allows folks to get on with the task in hand and quickly park system-of-work issues until the next retro. This is very powerful as teams can often be underperforming for a very long period before an unvented issue either boils over or leads to disengaged employees. A team that knows they only have to wait until the end of next week to have issues addressed can crack on with the current way of doing things, and not get frustrated. "I don't think we should be doing it like this", "You might have a point, let's leave it as it is for now and we'll make sure we discuss it on Thursday".

Allows for experimentation

“Let’s give this new way a go and we’ll feedback at the next retro.” This was a common saying in my teams. It communicates clearly that we are trying something out, we’re not permanently changing anything. It significantly reduces the risk associated with making changes, which makes changes more accessible and less scary. As a team becomes confident with experimentation, more radical ways of working and approaches can be tried. Trusting that changes will be reviewed regularly is the foundation of confident experimentation.

Makes improving the system of work part of the work

By regularly devoting time to the team and their ways of work we make it clear that the way we work as a unit is important. That regardless of how effective we are we can always improve. And that everyone has an active part to play in making the team work better. Your job as a member of this team is not just to do tasks, it’s to contribute to an effective team.

How regular?

When a team is working well, and their environment is relatively stable, they should still have a retrospective at least every month. For most projects I’d recommend fortnightly, in newly formed teams, weekly retrospectives are very useful for establishing team norms and expectations and dealing with the huge range of clarifications, and anxieties that can crop up when a new group of people come together. If the project or activity is very short (e.g. just one week) then having shorter daily retros might be the best way to go.

Avoid skipping retrospectives

It’s very tempting, particularly when things seem to be going smoothly, to skip a retrospective, after all the work is getting done and everyone seems happy, right? I would strongly advise against skipping a retrospective, once you’ve got a rhythm established the regular retrospective acts as a keystone habit for all other transformative behaviours to stem from. It might also be that once the obvious issues with a system of work have been resolved that you get to the big underlaying issues that no one brought up before. Perhaps your perception of “things going well” isn’t shared by the team and several of them have been sitting on an issue wait to use the retro as an opportunity to talk about it. Establishing the pattern is hard and takes commitment, don’t brake it once it’s up and running.

Everything’s great!!

If you discover that everything genuinely is going great, then use the time together as a team to celebrate your success, to discuss the reasons why everything went so well and share that learning with other teams. Or just spend time together as humans enjoying each other’s company. Strong teams are a joy to be part of and it’s never a waste of time to take a moment together to reflect on that.

About the author

Tom Styles

From over 20 years of crafting digital solutions in both the public and private sectors, Tom has a wealth of experience at delivery and leadership level. Tom’s passion for human-centred innovative use of technology and his ability to communicate with both a technical and business audience help maximise value from technology investments.

Tom blogs about agile, technology, and occasionally DJing or Ultimate Frisbee. 

Photo by Behnam Norouzi on Unsplash