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Alli Teration
Alli Teration

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Retros that don't suck

How we do retros at our early stage startup.

In the earliest days of furl, we decided to prioritize retros. Retrospectives ("retros" for short) are intended to increase the team's quality and effectiveness, and we wanted to build those in from the beginning. We were just learning how to work together, and we wanted to make sure we were putting in place processes that set us up for success instead of bogging us down.

Doing retrospectives this early on might be surprising. As a small startup, we only have so many hours in a day, and we don't want to spend our time in unproductive meetings. We asked ourselves: As a small startup, how can we make sure our retrospectives are productive and worth our precious time?

Successful retrospectives focus on outcomes. They keep people engaged, encourage people to open up, and most importantly: enact meaningful change. Here's how we run valuable retros at furl.

Keep people engaged

In order to get the most out of your retro, the team needs to be engaged so they're bringing up real problems that the team can solve. To do this, we switch up the format.

Switching up formats can inspire creativity and help team members come up with new ideas and topics. Googling “retro formats" or “retro ideas" will return hundreds of suggestions. Here are a couple we use that you could try:

The Marie Kondo retro

Marie Kondo wrote the bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, where she suggests going through your things and keeping what “sparks joy" and discarding what's no longer serving you.

A Miro board of a Marie Kondo themed retro

Keep - What sparked joy since the last retro.

Throw Away - What did not spark joy—what's no longer serving the team.

Recycle - What could spark joy if we made some changes or did it in a new way?

Rants, raves, and ruminations

This format encourages team members to really dig into what's bothering them, as well as what's been on their mind lately. It's a great format for encouraging team members to open up and center discussions around important topics.

A Miro board of a rants, raves, and ruminations retro

Rants - Things that have been bothering the team.

Raves - Things that the team wants to celebrate.

Ruminations - Things the team has been thinking about.

Values retro

Occasionally we do a “values" retro, where we reflect on how we're sticking to our five company values: authenticity, empathy, grit, innovation, and excellence. We discuss what we can be doing to embody our values better as a team, and plan changes to help us maintain our values.

Encourage sharing

To have a successful retro, team members need to feel comfortable opening up about what's bothering them about the work or the team's processes. Team members need to feel that their thoughts will be heard, and they won't be judged or blamed during the process. Here's how we do this at furl:

  • Always include wins: Every retro includes a place for celebrating what went well. This adds positivity to the retro and helps keep the team motivated.
  • Lead by example: Leaders fully participate in retro and aren't afraid to dig into areas that need improvement, as well as celebrating wins from team members.
  • Ban blame: Figure out the why behind a problem, not the who. Strive to find solutions.
  • Valuing authenticity: We strive to build a culture where we can be open with each other not just during retro. If a company has a culture that's full of blame, where people don't feel comfortable being themselves and taking risks, you can't suddenly expect your team to feel and behave differently during retro.

Certain retro formats can encourage sharing: The Rants, Raves, and Ruminations format above is a particularly good one to bring out if you want to inspire your team to open up.

Make meaningful change

The biggest take-away here is this: if you want successful retros, your retros have to drive a positive impact for your team. It's the opposite of Vegas: what happens at retro needs to go beyond retro. The best way to do this is by summarizing the discussion, creating action items, and following up with the team.

  • During the retro: Highlight general themes, document decisions, and assign action items.
  • After the retro: Write up a summary including the themes, decisions, and action items. At furl we like to include an overlying theme for the retro called a kaizen, a Japanese word that means “good change" or improvement. Share the document with the team.
  • In-between retros: Complete action items and implement the great ideas that came out of the retro. Review action items when we sync up as a team.
  • The next retro: Follow up! Review the document for the previous retro and reassess or reassign incomplete action items as needed.

Even better retros

Having a retro process that's engaging, open, and brings about meaningful change will help you and your team get the most out of your retrospectives. Even the smallest of startups can benefit from running retros furl-style.

At furl we believe in continuous improvement which is one of the reasons we have retros in the first place. What are you doing in your retrospectives to keep them captivating and receptive? How do you make sure your retros lead to progress within your company?

Cross-posted from the blog.

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