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Empower Your Team to Make Big Changes, Using 'Agile Retrospectives'

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Most entrepreneurs, especially those not involved with software development, have probably never heard of agile retrospectives. But such retrospectives offer an easy way to revolutionize a team's ability to self-manage, self-motivate and self-improve -- and they can easily be applied to any industry.


Agile software development is an alternative to traditional management. The term refers to principles for software development that come about through collaboration between and among self-organizing, cross-functional teams, promoting "adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change."

An "agile retospective" refers to a meeting held at the end of each "iteration" or stage in Agile software development: The team reflects on what happened in the iteration and identifies actions for improvement going forward.

Agile retrospectives are free, simple and easy -- people, pens and paper are all that's needed. These activities help every team member reveal, explore and solve hidden challenges, driving the team as a whole toward efficiency, effectiveness, improved communication, autonomy and overall happiness.

There is also power in an agile retrospective's simplicity; when this process succeeds on a repeated basis, helping teams overcome multiple small challenges, it fosters real change. Ultimately, agile retrospectives empower teams to foster their own continuous improvement. And that becomes contagious.

Related: Growth and Change Require Agile Leadership and Bedrock Values

Promote autonomous thinking

Every department and industry has problems with setting objectives, measuring progress, creating accountability and inspiring self-improvement. Agile retrospectives are solutions which, once applied, make a huge difference.

Beyond the benefits of becoming more productive, these retrospectives offer huge paybacks in terms of employee engagement and the customer experience. When employees have a platform to discuss their concerns and grievances, job satisfaction increases. And when employees are happier, feel they are being heard and have a clear vision of where they're headed, they build better products for their customers.

Related: How Making Employees Lifelong Learners Can Help Your Company Succeed

Some companies jump into retrospectives, assuming the processes will work like magic. They don't. An effective retrospective requires preparation, facilitation and a commitment to frequency. Here are five easy steps leaders can use to cultivate self-improvement and more agile thinking among their teammates:

1. Set the tone for discovery.

The first goal of a retrospective is to get everyone to contribute and participate. Bringing data to the table without honest conversation is useless. Incorporate games and ice breakers with the intention of (gently) forcing participation. Start by describing the retrospective activity, directing the conversation from there.

2. Collect feedback.

Focus team members on a short time period, and ask them to share their true feelings about the work going on during that time. It will be too early at this point to solve problems, so use this opportunity to collect feedback on everything that's working well or failing miserably -- and everything in between -- from the team's point of view.

At Rebel, we play a game called "mad, sad, glad." We ask people to share specific instances that made them feel angry, upset or happy. Using the method described in the article "Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great!" has been instrumental in getting our whole team to participate.

Further, asking each participant to independently write down these feelings he or she has had encourages shy people to share and discourages over-sharers from taking over the discussion. Feedback cards are organized by category, with like items grouped together; the team has an honest, definitive and visual lay of the land.

This reveals the dominant emotion of the team -- and which "mads" or "sads" are having the biggest impact.

3. Create a safe space to generate insight.

Generating insight is about both exploring the root causes of a challenge and discussing why the challenge exists as a team.

Facilitators who sense resistance can remind teammates that they, the facilitators, are actually looking for problems and that no one will be penalized for negative feedback. Facilitators should then sit back and let the team drive the conversation; managers who begin offering solutions will only discourage the kind of environment conducive to retrospectives.

An activity we often use is called "wind vs. anchor." Team members are asked to identify the wind at their back (i.e., contributing factors that can improve the situation) and the anchors holding them down (i.e., the forces holding them back).

4. Establish SMART goals.

Creating goals can be the most valuable part of the process. Once everyone knows why a challenge exists, leaders can ask their team members to brainstorm immediate changes that will address the challenge and improve their world.

At Rebel, this stage is about setting SMART goals (i.e., goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely). Leaders, rather than personally recommend the goals, should encourage everyone to get more precise with the goals they feel they can accomplish. Allowing them to take on irrelevant or unattainable goals will ultimately lower morale when they fail to hit the mark.

These goals need to pinpoint what the team can do immediately. Once all potential SMART goals are identified, the team can select and commit to the best ones.

5. Book your next retrospective.

The key to using retrospectives is frequency. Once clear goals are set to solve one problem, set a date for the next retrospective. While setting the stage, check in to see whether the problems you identified in the last retrospective have improved. If so, fantastic; if not, explore whether the goals were accomplished or were simply ineffective. These are experiments, but nurturing real change requires follow-through. Encourage the team to hold itself accountable. A failed experiment is one thing; not trying at all is unacceptable.

Related: 4 Ways to Teach Personal Accountability to Your Employees

Retrospective facilitators can come from anywhere: They can be members of your team, others in your organization or external facilitators. Managers don't always have to facilitate retrospectives -- in fact, an outsider may guarantee the most honest and open feedback.

Leaders have a responsibility to move their teams forward, but giving "marching orders" day in and day out will never yield an autonomous team. With agile retrospectives, you can enable your team to respond to change, driving both individual and collective success.

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