Saturday, December 26, 2015

Learn from the Past to Make the Future Better

“Retrospectives” or "Lessons Learned” or "Post Mortems” are a key part of improving your personal and organizational behavior. This article will walk you through some tips for making your future better as a result of learning from the past.

It’s the day after Christmas and we are sitting around the breakfast table discussing all the fun that we’ve had.  The questions that we asked was, “What is the best Christmas you remember?”. 

The Best Christmas that I remember was the year that I went to bed in my room on Christmas Eve and woke up in the living room on Christmas day.

The door handle on my room was taped shut with masking tape and a bow was placed on the knob.  My dad suggested there might be wild animals in the room or some other rather scary scenario.  

Eventually I got to open my door and inside was 8’x4’ table with entire slot car track and HO scale train set winding through curves and hills on the imaginary countryside.  I had that train/car table for almost a decade (8 years to 18 years) and enjoyed hundreds of hours of fun both racing the slot cars, running the railroad and also completely remaking the entire circuit numerous times.

The next questions was, “What are some of your favorite things about Christmas traditions?” 

We had answer like, “Going to a christmas tree farm and getting a tree.”  Or “Eating French Dip sandwiches after officially finishing tree decorating.  Or “The traditional family Christmas Eve party that we always have.”

Guess what we just did?  We reminisced about our favorite things.  In technical terms, this was a retrospective, but was obviously a lot more fun than perhaps the same type of adventure you might have at work.  And when you apply this to a work scenario, planning is quite important.  Mainly because the quality of the retrospective is directly proportional to the planning effort.

The definition of a successful retrospective is: “At least one action items is identified and scheduled to be executed before the participants leave the meeting. "


This is the 7th article in the series of Better Meeting Magic.  The introduction to this series, “Change Your Meetings and Change Your Life with Meeting Facilitation (aka Meeting Magic) describes how to revolutionize collaboration with teams.

Tip #1: Plan the Retrospective

When it comes to creating a retrospective, it’s always good to know what you want to get out of the retrospective before you conduct this part of the meeting.  A random question like, “How did this meeting go?” will likely result ambigous and voluminous feedback. The discussion will likely be more like a shotgun blast than focused actionable feedback. 

If you want to conduct a retrospective as a normal part of your meeting, have your retrospective questions planned before hand.

Here are some example questions that you might want to ask at the end of the meeting.

Note: Some questions will help you determine if you are being an effective facilitator.  Other questions will help you determine if you got the result you wanted out of the meeting.
  • “How well did we meet the meeting goal?
  • “Did we create a satisfactory plan of action?”
  • "How happy are we with the plan?”
  • “Did we correctly identify the root cause of the issue?”
Notice how these questions are a little right brained.  In other words, people are reaching into their sense of values rather than just the facts.  These right brained questions can really get outstanding feedback. If you couple these questions with Tip #2, you can keep the retrospective in a small time box.  If you allow people to speak freely on these questions, you might overrun your time allocation.

Tip #2: Use Simple Tools

If you conduct an hour long meeting, you won’t have a lot of time for a RETROSPECTIVE. One of the fastest feedback mechanism that I know about is called fist of five.  Here’s how it goes.
  1. Identify two extreme’s to quantify the meeting success or failure.  For example:  Failure is no actionable content was derived from this meeting. Success is clear and concise and actionable steps were derived from this meeting. 
  2. Ask the question of the participants, “I want everyone to vote with your fingers by holding up 1,2, 3, 4 or 5 fingers"
  3. Explain more, “A vote with 1 finger means we have created no actionable steps from this meeting.  A vote with 5 fingers means, we’ve created clear, concise and actionable steps that we can immediately implement.”
  4. Now call the participants to action, “On the count of 3 hold up the number of fingers that represent your view on how the meeting went.”
  5. Count and record all the votes on a whiteboard.
  6. For votes that are 1, 2 or 3, ask the participants why they thought it was average or less than average.  For vote of 4 and 5, you can skip getting feedback if you are pressed for time.  
The outliers will provide excellent feedback.  Usually you will learn how people’s expectation may have been different from what you advertised in the meeting goal.  Or you may find some interesting and subtle things about how the meeting missed the mark.  I love getting outlier feedback…it’s the input that helps me the most change my behavior and perform better.

Tip #3: FOCUS

Focus on getting only 1 or 2 top priority issues from your retrospective. When conditioning a retrospective, you will need to find a mechanism to focus the feedback in a very specific and narrow category in order for it to be useful.  This is especially true if you conduct retrospectives at the end of a meeting (which include only analyzing the flow and content of a single meeting) or at the end of 2 week agile software development cycle (which includes only 2 weeks of team behavior).

For an excellent resource on retrospectives, read, "Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great".

I recommend looking at multi-voting for a quick decision making framework. You can read more about that technique in the article, "Always Enter a Meeting with a Goal, Always Leave a Meeting with a Decision."

Leave a comment on how your most recent retrospective went?  Did you have success at getting action items?  Let me know?