How to use retros to build a better company — and culture

by Richenda Vermeulen
August 16, 2018

How do you make sure that you and your team are continuously improving?

At ntegrity—like Google, Facebook, and Atlassian—we set aside time to run a specific meeting called a retrospective (or “retro”) every fortnight. We explore what worked, where we can improve, and how to work better as a team.

But for the majority of companies, retros are still fairly uncommon.

If you’re looking for a way to build communication, trust, and efficiencies in your team, you may want to consider running this type of team meeting as well.

What we do

Every other Friday at four o’clock, we pack into of conference room with a stack of post-it notes. The instructions are simple.

“Reflecting on the last two weeks, please take a couple minutes to write down what’s working, what’s not working and what questions do you have.”

From there, we

  • Pop the post-it notes into the three columns on the whiteboard

  • Vote on the ones to discuss

  • Hold a time-boxed conversation (usually 7 minutes each) on the key issues.

If it all sounds very simple, it is.

But it’s also an awesome way for teams to build trust, communicate better, and work on fixing problems together.

So… what exactly is a “retro”?

A retro, or “retrospective” is meeting in which a team reflects their recent work and how to improve. Retros originally started at software development companies, where working independently and quickly on complex problems meant teams needed an agile approach to communication and management.

Basically, a retro is time for your team to reflect, create shared understanding, and propose better ways of working.

Who runs it?

Retros should be a place for honest discussion. It should be free of hierarchy and not blindly following HIPPOs (the highest paid person’s opinion). They’re best facilitated by someone on your team that isn’t the boss. Often different members of the team take turns facilitating the retro.

The point is to pursue continuous improvement, that is, making changes to your processes, tools or tactics, that lead to better outcomes.

Wait, this sounds scary!

If the idea of letting your team openly discuss the challenges you’re facing sounds scary, it may be an indicator that you really do need retros.

As uncomfortable as it to acknowledge problems or hard questions when run properly, these conversations create space for better work environments.

Here’s 6 ways retros help:

1. Shorter Feedback Loops

When projects go well, they should be shared and celebrated. Likewise, when things go pear-shaped, that should be acknowledged and discussed so your team doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

2. Celebrating Wins

As a growing company, it’s now impossible for everyone to be across all the wins, progress, and developments as they happened. Retros give us a time to share highlights like…

Their leadership team loved the strategy!
Our campaign smashed the goal!
We won the tender from Department of XYZ!

3. Acknowledging Problems

Just as important as recognizing the wins, retros allow us to highlight problems. And because we’re proactively looking to discuss them, problems can be identified and discussed while they’re still emerging.

For example, due to our recent growth, we’re starting to run out of meeting room space in our office. Flagging this in retro allows the GM and CEO to discuss plans for a future office space, but also give everyone opportunity to discuss alternative places for meetings and working from home options.

4. Experiments > Policies

Policies are hard work. They require drafts on drafts, and they’re often not the most effective way to create change. Some teams try to solve problems by writing more policies, when a simple conversation or experiment could put everyone on the same page.

When issues are raised, our team works together to suggests different experiments or changes to our processes that we can test for a fortnight. Then, at the next retro, we’ll check in and see if the issue still exists.

5. Set a tone of honesty and transparency

Retros create space to allow and encourage, hard questions. It provides safe space to dig into issues, concerns, and things that went wrong.

By being upfront about the good, bad and the uncertain, teams build more trusting relationships and encourage openness and honesty.

6. Bottom-up approach to problems

As a leader, there’s a lot on your plate. From growth plans to budgets, forecasting to HR issues, a lot of problems come up that need solutions. Often these are dealt with by implementing new policies and then waiting to see how these are received.

As an alternative, retros allow the leadership team to take a step back and let the rest of the team take ownership of problems and participate in solving them. It allows information to flow freely and uncensored in a way that lets everybody, not just senior leaders, have their say in these conversations.

Wrap up

When new team members join ntegrity, they’re often surprised how honest and blunt our team is during the conversations in retros. Over time, we’ve become really comfortable giving and receiving feedback and proposing ideas to improve our work.

Retros are a great reminder that we have ownership in our work lives and that anyone can suggest new and better ways of working.

Further reading:

This Silicon Valley-style meeting can transform your whole team (Fast Company)

Retrospectives (Atlassian)

7 Cardinal sins of retrospectives (Medium)