This past weekend I was spending time with my brother and his family. One of the things I love about visiting with them (besides their adorable kids) is how interested they are in what I do. They seem to ask all of the right questions that make me fall back in love with what I do, how I do it, and why I do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do even on the days I’m not hanging out with the family, but I often fall into the trap of normalcy. At one point, everything I was doing was new and fresh and it was an uphill battle just to get to do a fraction of it. Now, at MHS, all of those things have become what we practice every day — it’s become my new normal.

From outside the agile and lean communities, what we do may seem very radical. We are more of a community than a company. We focus more on people than titles. We emphasize roles and responsibilities over hierarchy and power. We practice inclusion and opportunity over exclusivity and selectivity. We encourage and support continuous practice, learning, discipline, and discussion. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Utopian? Sure sounds like it. Idealistic? I think so. Lip service? Absolutely not.  

We’ve built our company and community around the idea of a retrospective. If you’re not familiar with it, it is essentially the act of gathering a community together at the end of “something” to review the events, learn from the experience, and grow. A traditional retrospective usually tries to answer the following four questions:

  • What did we do well?
  • What did we learn?
  • What should we do differently next time?
  • What still puzzles us?

A common example is a project retrospective which shows up in agile and lean projects. For these types of projects the something may be an iteration, a milestone, a release, or the entire project. These activities help the group reflect and try to best answer the above four questions.

Project retrospectives can easily become a ceiling, but they shouldn’t be. We’ve found it works extremely well to take the retrospective beyond the project limits and apply it to the entire company — including every human that makes it up.

For us, daily retrospectives were too much and bi-weekly ones seems too far in-between. We have been practicing weekly retrospectives for close to a year now. The last hour of every week is set aside for our company retrospectives. We’ve played with the format a bunch, trying regular facilitators, switching up the facilitators, brainstorming retrospective activities and ideas, using whiteboards, easels, flip paper, note cards, sticky notes, and often times we move the furniture from one side of the office to the other. Recently, we’ve found what we think is the sweet spot for our furniture and it’s been the same for around the past month.

Our retrospectives can be quite different, but generally have the following properties:

  • Everyone chooses to participate (most of the time everyone participates)
  • There is a facilitator (this is usually one person, but in the past there have been two people co-facilitating)
  • The facilitator(s) identify and prepare an activity for everyone to take part in (facilitators often do not participate in the activity, but based on the activity they may)
  • The artifacts produced by the activity are collected at the end and made available to the entire team (we commonly place these artifacts on the walls so they are easily visible, and if the activity doesn’t allow for that we provide them electronically for everyone to access)
  • Everyone goes home for the weekend

The first item above highlights something important to us — that retrospectives aren’t mandated. We encourage everyone to participate because it benefits everyone, but people have missed them. Life happens. Clients happen. Stuff happens. I believe this aides in why we’ve found retrospectives so important:

  • It gives people a consistent a platform to share each week (without fear of retribution or penalty, openness and honesty is fully supported and expected)
  • It gives people the opportunity to improve not only themselves, but the entire company.
  • It allows people to practice their listening.
  • It allows people to be paid for thinking deeply about the company and community as a whole.
  • It communicates to people that everyone else in the company cares about them and the company (because retrospectives aren’t mandatory, people choose to attend, to participate with one another)
  • It allows people to have a hand in creating the type of company, culture, and community they want to be a part of.
  • It strengthens our relationships, which in turn improves our ability to work together to solve challenging problems for clients.
  • Whether we’re doing a technically-focused, community-focused, process-focused, customer-focused, organization-focused, etc. retrospective, our company improves every week.
  • The overall morale of the company is high.

Basically, for us, we’ve found that people like working in an open environment where they can be themselves. And through being themselves they can add to the make-up of our company and to our ability to improve and do great things for our clients.  This isn’t to say that we don’t have problems like any other company. We do. Our problems don’t fester though. We nip them in the bud every week and are able to pivot the company in a better direction for doing so.

If a retrospective isn’t something you’re currently doing for projects, I would like to highly recommend Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. It’s a great way to get started with project oriented retrospectives in an immediate and effective way.

If you are doing project retrospectives, but haven’t yet taken the step to apply those to your entire company, I highly encourage you to take that leap. Based on the size and culture of your organization there may be obstacles that need you need to overcome, maneuver around, or think creatively about. Don’t let this stop you though. To help you get started, here are a few activities that are meaningful and fairly quick to do:

If you find the idea of a retrospective intimidating, don’t be alarmed, initially so did I. The upside is that continual reflection and fresh questions keep you thinking about what you do in a novel way. And if you do fall into the normalcy routine, find someone like my brother, and let them ask you questions about what you and why do it. It may just uncover the inspiration and incredible feeling that accompanied you into doing what you’re doing now.

To help keep the momentum in our community going we’ll posting more on retrospectives and associated activities in the future. If you have any questions about becoming a community-focused organization, don’t hesitate to drop us a line.  It’s something we’ve spent a lot of time and attention in creating, and we’re happy to share.

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