December 9, 2020

A Human-Centric Approach to Retrospectives

A Human-Centric Approach to Retrospectives | Mixmax

This is the ninth post of twelve for Mixmax Advent 2020.

Until recently, my engineering team at Mixmax conducted periodic retrospectives the way most teams do: we'd discuss What Went Well, What Could Have Gone Better, and How We Can Improve. This was... fine. We'd unearth some useful tidbits about our execution that we'd be able to take forward and use to be more effective in the coming weeks.

The problem was, we weren't feeling inspired by this style of retro. It had begun to feel rote, and that's no way to gain deep insights about a team's performance. When I thought about why, I realized: this retro encourages us to be entirely focused on execution, and what we do has so many more facets than that.

Just like a good engineer isn't defined solely by their ability to write code, a team's performance isn't solely defined by their ability to close Jira tasks. A good engineer has to exhibit so many other core skills, like empathy, communication, initiative, support, collaboration, and respect in addition to writing good code, and a good team has to recognize the impact of these skills on their ability to achieve goals.

Around this time, I saw this thought-provoking tweet:

Virginia Satir was an author and therapist who worked with groups of people to help them understand and communicate better. In this video, she goes over a process she calls the "Temperature Reading" which she uses to help people assess their current state of being:

Satir takes a more holistic approach to understanding each individual's observations and concerns by focusing not on what was done, but rather on the impact of those actions. In order to keep our retros snappy, we've condensed the sections to the following:

  • Appreciations, where we share praise for individuals, tools, processes, or anything else good that helped us,
  • Grievances & Puzzles to Solve, where we talk about anything that bothered us or that we feel needs more investigation,
  • New Information, where we discuss what we've learned that affects our work,
  • Hopes & Wishes, where we outline what we'd like to accomplish or see change in the future.

We follow this up by selecting one or two key things to work on going forward, which we keep in mind and try to raise during daily standups or as needed.

The upshot of this new retro format has been a renewed sense of camaraderie and understanding of each other as human beings contributing to the team's success as a whole. It refocuses us and allows us to see the big picture about not just what the team is working on, but how and why we're doing what we do. And it helps uncover the messy, human aspects of getting things done that often affect our performance, which is key to understanding a team's journey.

Want to work on a team that values each other like this? Mixmax is hiring--come join us!

Header image: "Thermometer" by renaissancechambara is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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