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Preparing the next quarter — part 1: retros

We're a week away from Q4, and many of you are probably deep into planning mode. We have a 2 parts series to help you organize your next quarter.

  • Part 1 (this post): tips to run a retro.
  • Part 2: tips to plan your next quarter.

There are many retrospective techniques that you can use. Some are simple, and some like the Six Thinking Hats can require a bit more work. At Tability we mostly use the Start, Stop, Continue approach, and this is what I'm going to focus on here.

Here's how you can run a retro with your team in 1h.

1. Start with a timeline (10 mins)

A common mistake that teams make is to jump straight into talking about the issues they had. That's a dangerous thing to do because we humans have a selective memory that is great at remembering recent events, and not so good at keeping track of the past.

So the first thing you should do is to build a collective memory. Write down all the things that happened during the quarter.

  • Did you have incidents?
  • Were there holidays?
  • Was the full team available at all time?
  • Did you have offsites? Design sprints? Travels?
  • Did you do big launches? Soft launches?

All these things will help you have a more objective view of the quarter. It will help put things in perspective and provide a good understanding of the context.

It's easy to blame people based on numbers alone, but what if the team had to put out fires for 3 months straight? Tasks in a backlog don't get magically done — you need to have the right environment for it.

2. Look at the previous retro items (15 mins)

The second thing you need to do is discuss the items from the previous retrospective. Take the top actions that were identified previously and answer the following questions:

  • Did you manage to get them done?
  • If not, what was the reason?

Once again, it's a blameless exercise. The goal is to create an objective view of the quarter. 3 months ago, you met and decided that some things needed to change. It's important to remember what those things were and to understand what happened to them.

One last thing. You do not have to carry over previous retro items. Your priorities might have changed and it's okay to move on.

3. Brainstorm start, stop, continue (5 + 15 mins)

Now the fun part begins! Share a spreadsheet with the team (Google Sheets works fine) and add 3 columns for the things you need to start, stop, and continue doing.

Take 5 minutes so that everyone can write down the things that come to mind. You do NOT discuss the items during this phase. It's a brainstorming activity without judgment.

Once you're all done writing, you quickly go through each item to make sure that the team understands them. Here again, you don't debate things. It doesn't matter if everyone agrees on a particular item — the votes will take care of that in the next step.

I'm going to repeat it one more time for emphasis: You don't tell people they're wrong. If I write "Start having more meetings" and someone disagrees, then they just have to not vote on it. They can also write "Stop having more meetings" if they feel strongly about it (but that's really not necessary as you can trust the voting system).

4. Vote on Start and Stop (5 mins)

When you're done explaining the items in the table, it's time to vote to surface the most impactful ones. You only need to vote on things in the Start and Stop columns — the Continue items will just keep going.

A simple way to vote is to give each participant in the meeting 5 votes, and only allow 1 vote per item.

Write down the 3 most popular suggestions for Start and Stop and find an owner for them. Of course, they'll need help. But having an owner is a good way to make sure that action items get done. If no one is responsible for them, then it's likely that you'll see those again in the next retro.

5. Wrap up!

That's it! That was a whole 51 minutes. I factored in the 5 minutes required to get into the room (or the conf call) and the 2 minutes spent reminding people not to debate Start and Stop items. You should have a good 2 minutes left to be proud of the excellent job you've done. 👊

In the next post we'll see a few tips to prepare the goals for the next quarter!

This article is part of our newsletter Scaling Small. Subscribe below to get more posts like that in your inbox. You can also find me on Twitter @stenpittet.