Retrospection on the Retrospective

A seemingly universal axiom for processes is that there is no universal process. They can vary as much as the people who practice them. Which is great when you remember that process exists to help people improve, and not the other way around.

So when the ForwardJS crew yet again invited this non-developer to speak at their bi-annual Javascript event, I thought of my trusted, respected colleague, DMose. One of the founders of the Mozilla Project, Dan has taken thoughtful and intentional steps to continually improve how he and his engineering teams work.

During my 4.5 years at Mozilla, I’ve grown to greatly appreciate Dan’s careful consideration of the process and human elements to his technical work. As we touched on some of these elements, we identified the Retrospective as a practice that can deliver many of these principles for teams.

Which, as with most processes (see above), has been tweaked, adapted, forked to meet the needs of the individuals using it. For Dan and his team, the Retrospective contains 4 questions, reviewed by the team at the end of each week:

    What did we do well?
    What did we learn?
    What could we have done better?
    What puzzles us?

The takeaways….

One Big Benefit
The Retrospective questions – in the above order – have done something critical for Dan’s team: they’ve built trust. More than any learning or process change, the development of trust among the team is what makes it effective. It allows for failure and its valuable counterpart, risk; and ensures that the costs of such risks are translated into valuable learnings for the future.

Another important guiding principle to create this trust is to not “shoot the messenger”: if someone shares something they think didn’t go well, it’s important that the team hears that person out and distances them from their feedback on the team’s performance.

Small things matter
Does the question order matter? Indeed. Because the questions start with a focus on things done well, the process begins with confidence. And by framing them in the collective “we”, and positioning failures as learnings or things to solve, the questions depersonalize negative impacts, instead reframing them as opportunities to get better.

From trust to change
Our session was quite lively (we took this to be a good thing), and one of our audience members cited the Retrospective as a key way they introduce changes to their org. Because the scope of the restrospective is often small (importantly, the work featured is positioned as “small experiments”, which allows folks to be healthily detached from the outcome), they allow for changes to be adopted while minimizing the fear and uncertainty that typically accompany change.

It’s this ability to introduce change in small increments that makes the Retrospective so empowering. Any team can adopt it.

We’re curious to hear of your own experience with retrospectives.

Embracing the Geekery

Honored as always to be invited to speak again at the awesome Forward conference, this time ’round I went with the allegedly elusive and ephemeral yet very important and real topic of Geek Culture.

Peter Drucker, famously misattributed to the famous “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” adage, knew some things aren’t so simple. When it comes to culture, things are rarely simple, easy or measureable. But they are ultimately important and influenceable. And just as the Lean Movement has established a process and framework to cultivate product & market growth (ok, it borrows from Newton a little), we’re keen to apply similar principles that make sense for culture.

Even small scrappy companies with few resources and infinite external challenges (you know, the survival things like building product, finding funding and getting customers) are increasingly aware that focusing on culture is a baseline and not a luxury. The entrepreneurs at Hackers / Founders get it enough that they asked me to share about this yesterday too.

As with any business initiative, you must know your audience. This one is targeted to those we know and love: the geeks.

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Still Weird, Still Awesome Austin

2015 marked my 4th year not-in-a-row at South by Southwest. My observations from last year still largely hold true, though this year some of the crowds seem to have staved off (Mykel, my Austinite buddy, speculated that some of this may be from key sponsorship changes this year – from Chevrolet to Mazda and from Frito-Lay to…McDonalds…) and I’m not going to disagree: I sure didn’t head over to the Golden Arches area. That said, there is such a plethora of rich, meaningful content and amazing people all in one spot, it still deserves a go. Continue reading →