Recently, over breakfast of chilaquiles with my colleague Andrei, I once again found myself extolling the virtues of the only meeting type in the world that I wholeheartedly love: The Retro.
Andrei and I were having a working breakfast about our company Remote Year. Andrei came on board a few months ago as a Programs Team Manager and works with teams that lead 3–4 of our programs. The talk eventually drifted to feedback and Andrei asked if I had any thoughts on how to best structure feedback sessions and then how to capture actionable insights.
As the question was coming out of his mouth, I started to jitter with excitement, as I always do when I get to tell someone new about the beauty of a Retro, but let’s back up.
Retros are a 1-hour meeting that are held regularly and allow teams to review what went well, what went meh, and what went badly about the work that has been delivered in the past week, two weeks, or month.
I first experienced a Retro when I was with a company called Case Commons, then a client of Pivotal Labs NYC. I learned then that Retros are best done on a Friday afternoon, usually with an open beer, in a relaxed atmosphere. The session starts with a facilitator drawing a happy face, a meh face and a sad face on a white board or on a shared google doc. For roughly 10 minutes the team members independently write down what they feel was great, shrug and bad about the work that has happened leading into the Retro. Teammates can +1 stuff that they agree with.
Everyone then sits down and the facilitator touches on each thing from the column, mixing it up between the faces, until all are discussed. They ask for teammates to sound off on what is implied by each piece of feedback. Anything that becomes a larger discussion should be parked and have an action item applied to it. The sad column should produce a number of activities in the Action Items column that are intended to improve or remedy the things that did not go well. Individuals should volunteer or be assigned responsibility for Action Items. At the next Retro, the facilitator should review the Action Items from the last one, and see what’s been done or not done.
Despite the eye-rolling nature of this phrase, Retros should be safe spaces for the team to discuss mistakes or things that went poorly. Feedback should be given and be meant kindly. Retros should embody a spirit of “No Blame” culture so that issues can be discussed freely and honestly. Make no mistake, getting a team to sit down in person and talk freely about mistakes isn’t easy.Most people have never done it and it can be uncomfortable especially when things aren’t totally hunky-dory. It’s a muscle that teams need to exercise. That’s why the correct cadence for Retros is usually weekly. It gets people comfortable with giving feedback to each other, and also holds people accountable for the action items and helps improve things in a tangible way. This helps them believe that continual improvement is both possible and expected. Retros should not be allowed to slide off the schedule. At its heart, a Retro is a planning meeting, one specifically meant to address issues and weaknesses. What could be more important than that?
Retros are great for other reasons:
The structure provides an opportunity to discuss positives and negatives, so that folks can remember that even when mistakes are made, good things happen as well.
Retros work really well with 100% of team sizes. They are as effective for 1:1s as they are for large teams. I do a 1:1 retro monthly with my boss, and I’ve been in retros with teams of 30 devs.
Retros are domain agnostic. I have a friend who has a bakery and she leads retros with her team. A friend of mine who is a lawyer has retros with her manager. The main point is to be able to address where things get have gotten sticky, and there isn’t a team or a company in the world that couldn’t use that.
Retros are always there, people get used to that and start noting and storing feedback for them. Teams and individuals start to get more thoughtful about process and more creative about improvement possibilities. Retros help people get better at getting better.
Get better. Do Retros.