Back to the future – Optimize processes in 3 steps

How to move from reacting to acting again

Constantly reacting to changes is exhausting. If the next change begins before the previous one has really been completed, things can get very bumpy. Here you will learn how to use the retrospective tool to stabilize situations, optimize processes and get back on track.

The retrospective as part of agile approaches is nothing completely new. As lessons learned, retrospectives were usually conducted – albeit reluctantly – at the conclusion of projects.

Today, the retrospective focuses more on potential for improvement and efficiency instead of on shortcomings and milestones that have not been reached. And it can also be wonderfully applied to time periods and processes outside of a project.

Background

Retrospective as a form of learning from experience owes its popularity to the agile approach Scrum. In Scrum, an interdisciplinary team develops a product (originally software) whose development stages are delivered deployable in short cycles (“iterations”). At the end of each cycle, the team looks back and asks themselves what they want to learn from it for the next cycle.

Scrum uses many elements from lean management, including this one: Continuous improvement practices include finding best practices for the activities to be performed, sharing them within the team, and developing them further (Kaizen).

This approach is also found in the retrospective, which allows for a more open perspective and thus the expansion of positive experiences.

Process optimization procedure

Preparation

The retrospective deals with a specific task, e.g. a project section or the processes of an operation. The topic is always viewed from three angles:

  • Positives/Promotions: What was good and should be kept?
  • Negative/blocking: What was not good and should be stopped?
  • Potential/Strengthening: What else could be improved?

These preparations help to come out of the retrospective with concrete measures in the end:

  • Instead of “Review of 1 year of Corona measures”, it is better to use “Review of 1 year of distance and hygiene measures in production”, “… home office in customer service”, “… rotating shifts in personnel”, etc.
  • The same is true with group size: divide a large group so that smaller groups of 3-8 focus on sub-topics.
  • The retrospective can be done both in presence and virtually. Important in both cases:
    • Choose a time and place that prevents disruptions, allows participants to focus on the workshop, and does not tempt them to attend to other things. For example, do not schedule a virtual meeting during typical family times.
      You will also need a board to work on together, in presence with sticky notes and pens, otherwise a virtual whiteboard (selection: see brainstorming tools).
  • Professional facilitation by someone who is not part of the team has the following advantages:
    • Neutrality creates a relaxed climate with more even participation and better weighed results.
      Participants can focus entirely on content.
      Queries from an outside perspective improve clarity.
      Professional discussion management with clear structures delivers high-quality results in a short time.

Phase 1: Gather information

  • The group starts by establishing a common level of knowledge: What period of time are we talking about, what aspects of the topic are we looking at?
  • Everyone notes down experiences that were remarkable for them.
  • Collect the notes on the board. If it is a longer period of time, these notes can be collected, for example, in an event timeline (see figure).
  • To capture moods and later link them to the experiences, team members can also draw a mood curve under the timeline (see figure).
Retrospective Phase 1 - Gathering Information
Example for the collection of information about a customer journey – Source: Own representation
  • The notes are briefly presented and explained individually to the group.

Phase 2: Gaining insights

A particularly simple form of retrospective is “Start – Stop – Continue”. It delivers initial insights surprisingly quickly in 3 steps:

  1. Form on the board the three columns Start – Stop – Continue
  2. The group now asks each other about each note:
    • Do we want to continue (Continue) or stop (Stop)? The note will be moved to the appropriate column.
    • What caused this experience? What do we need to do to continue it or stop it? The answers are added to the note.
    • What else can we do to reinforce positive things or prevent negative things? These points go into the “Start” column.
  3. Group the notes thematically if it becomes too confusing otherwise.

Of course, you can also simply leave experiences as they are, i.e. not assign them to any of the three categories, if the team cannot influence the point or it cannot be transferred to the team.

For example, the note “I finally have time to go jogging before work again” does not have to be followed by an action for all team members. But if there are several similar notes, this could be summarized, for example, to the realization “We like to be able to use the free time better according to our ideas with the same working time”. And this could be followed by the question of how this plus point can be maintained in the future.

Phase 3: Agree on measures

Once all the findings have been processed in this way, the final phase is about agreeing on measures to reinforce, avoid or create new points:

  • The group determines which items are most important. The easiest way to do this is with a point query, where everyone marks the 3-5 entries that are most important to them. This results in a prioritization of the topics.
  • For the most important 5-10 topics (depending on the size of the group and the number of topics) you now vote:
    • What are the first steps to implement this topic? It is important not to get bogged down in detailed discussions of the individual steps. If the implementation path is still too diffuse, the first step would be for a small team to develop an implementation proposal.
    • Who will take over the topic?
    • By when should it be implemented (or in the case of larger or more diffuse topics: by when should the group agree on the next steps with new information)?

With these concrete improvement steps for the future, the retrospective is complete. Arrange a follow-up appointment now; this increases the incentive to actually implement the measures.

Tips & Variations

Preventing recriminations

It can always happen that the group gets bogged down in questions of blame when trying to determine the causes. In these situations, focus on facts rather than on the people who acted:

  • If someone did something wrong: How could it be avoided?
  • Keep asking why (up to 5x) to get to the trigger: A mistake happened to a person. Why? Because the person was distracted. Why? Because the office situation is such that it is difficult to concentrate. Etc.

Reinforce the positive

Especially in the category “Continue”, it is tempting to leave the “continue like this”. The method develops added value if you continue to ask questions on these points as well:

  • How do we make sure it stays that way?
  • Can this be the starting point for even better?

Focus on the future

Especially when many negative experiences are difficult to eliminate with individual measures, a varied questioning can be useful. Instead of asking: “What was positive or negative?” one could look more forward:

  • What goal do we actually have in this whole subject?
  • What could help us, what could hinder us to reach this goal?
  • What can we do?

Take your time

The right duration cannot be specified across the board. For very small questions and groups (e.g. the experiences from the 2-week trial of a new chat application), 1 to 1.5 hours is completely sufficient. If the retrospective takes a whole day, it is definitely too long. Virtual retrospectives also require more frequent breaks.

Put the main part of the time into gaining insights. Gathering information can be done in as little as 15 minutes if the topic is still very present to everyone and not extensive.

However, do not shorten the meeting by postponing the agreement of the measures, because then the time invested up to then was wasted. If time is short, it is better to postpone individual topics from Phase 2 to a later retrospective and then only work on a subset – but including the measures – to the end.

Conclusion

Retrospectives are a simple means of learning from experience and using positive developments as a springboard for steady improvement.

They provide an opportunity to improve the quality of services or products without having to initiate major change projects.

At the same time, they foster team cohesion and trust, thereby facilitating teamwork and learning.

In this way, you can often even stay one step ahead of constant change. Try it out!

Know-how-Aufbau für tragfähige digitale Transformationsprozesse ist das Metier von Corinna Hischke. Aus 30 Jahren Erfahrung in Technologie, Organisation und Führung vermittelt sie Praxiswissen in Trainings, Workshops oder als individuelle Begleitung. Ein tiefes Verständnis der Technologien als Diplom-Informatikerin kombiniert sie mit der Leidenschaft für die handelnden Menschen und pragmatische Lösungen.

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