How Retrospectives Help

A retrospective is a shared opportunity to reflect on the past in an effort to improve the future. Every Friday afternoon, we’ve been doing one-hour retrospectives at our office for more than a year now, and they’re one of the most valuable practices we’ve picked up. A lot of founders we know have asked me how we run them, so we thought it’d be useful for other members of the community.

Formats: Retros are organic - let them evolve.

Sticky Notes: One of the first exercises we ran was to hand out sticky notes to the team, and ask them to brainstorm anything that made them happy during the week. Then we did the same exercise but asked the team to brainstorm what made them unhappy. After grouping together all the similar unhappy sticky notes, we got a very clear idea of the areas we needed to improve around the office.

Productivity Scores: Sometimes we distribute sticky notes and ask the team members to rate their own productivity and the team’s overall productivity on a scale from 1-5. The numbers aren’t really important, but they get people talking about what held them back and what pushed them forward.

Demos: We’ve always reviewed our accomplishments to kick off our retro, but as time progressed, we got tired of just talking about code. So we bought a TV and started doing demos of everything that shipped. It’s a fun way to kick off the retrospective, but more importantly it instills our value: ship or it didn’t happen.

Unstructured chats: As time went on, we all felt a little bit of “activity fatigue”. Once a team gets used to a lot of structured recipes, it’s awesome to let the feedback flow freely. This wouldn’t be the best way to run your first retro, because it assumes a certain level of openness, honesty and respect.

The unifying factor: Experiments

No matter what format the retro has taken, we’ve always used the opportunity to come up with experiments that we run the following week. If they’re successful, we keep them around. If they don’t end up paying dividends, we let them go. Some examples of successful experiments at our office include:
2pm standup meeting: Takes five minutes, meant to remove bottlenecks and allow the team to ask for help.
Daily exercise: After our standup, we all do a brief exercise as a group to get the blood flowing.
Asynchronous working environment: Work wherever you want, whenever you want.

Some reasons you might want to run a retro: How will you know it’s time to start running retros at your startup? One sign is that your team is growing and peoples’ relationships are starting to become fragmented. Remember how you all used to hang out on the weekend when you were a five person team? Yeah, that.

Also, if you’re starting to notice conflict between your team-members, be it overt arguments or passive aggressive comments. And finally, when you spot significant disagreement in your team’s opinions about workflow and other processes, this is a great way to get them on the table.

Benefits

Here’s four reasons you’ll thank yourself for getting these started:

  • Resolve Conflicts: There’s nothing like putting an argument to bed, and heading home for the weekend looking forward to Monday.
  • Bonding: We definitely trust each other more when we’re communicating and sharing stuff openly
  • Workflow Improvements: We’ve refined our pairing techniques, switched tracker apps, and started working asynchronously as retro experiments.