Product and Tech
Like many other companies in our industry, the teams in our Product Department run regular retrospectives, or “retros”. At Mentimeter we tend to run them on a bi-weekly basis. Although, our teams are pretty autonomous, so different teams may do things differently, depending on the people who work in it.
Retros are an opportunity to get the whole team together outside of daily stand-ups to think a little bit more deeply about processes, ways of working, and how we can improve these going forward. Often we use some kind of metaphor or theme to try to stimulate our thinking and make this routine meeting a little more interesting!
At Mentimeter we run retros for a few important reasons. This a bi-weekly check-in that typically only requires an hour or so of self-reflection. But this relatively brief thinking about the way we work - rather than the work itself - can help to make the work more efficient, more effective, and more enjoyable for the team. One reflection session can save hours, weeks, months, or even years of pain if we don’t think about problems in our work or team dynamic that might be easily addressed and worked through.
We tend to focus on a few key metrics. Including: workload and stress, performance, team alignment, and whether we feel challenged in our work as well as having fun. Making retros part of a routine helps us to notice when we are losing sight of the important things. They are also a ritual that gets the whole team into the right mindset going into the next two weeks.
We aim to share the responsibility for facilitating retros throughout the team. The preparation can require some work and hosting a retro can have its stresses, so we like to share that responsibility around the team. This also means that we get a fresh vision of what someone thinks a good retro looks like, which can help to prevent the routine and the format from becoming stale and repetitive.
Sharing responsibility also means that the person who is facilitating does not have to do all the heavy lifting. We all contribute openly to the discussion to help the facilitator and to allow them to guide the discussion rather than leading it. In true Mentimeter style, we try to make these meetings an engaging and inclusive collaboration between the facilitator and the participants, rather than an unbalanced and one-way monologue.
Recently I hosted a Windows 95 themed retro that put a fresh spin on the classic sailboat retro. This gave us a fun and engaging set of metaphors to help us think through the work we had done in the last two weeks.
We started off by sharing something that made us feel good about our work recently. Then we used Internet Explorer as a prompt to ask ourselves What has been slowing us down? We used the Recycling Bin icon to think about what worked well and we should do again. And finally we used the Minesweeper to look forward to future work and try to identify any potential issues or blockers before they arise.
Coming up with original framing devices like this is obviously more work. So why do we try to make retros fun like this? Well, retros can be tough. The aim is to improve our ways of working and to make work more challenging, rewarding, and fun for everyone in the team. But to get there we often need to have discussions on challenging topics. Maybe we had a rough sprint and have to have a serious think on how to make the next one better. Sometimes there are differences of opinion on the best route forward, the best solution to a problem, or even if something is a problem at all.
These can be difficult discussions to have. What we try to achieve in our retros is a feeling of safety, an encouragement to challenge the status quo, and a feeling that it is fine to make mistakes as long as we recognise them and use them as a lesson to do better next time. All without the fear of individual blame or reputation damage. Having a fun element helps to achieve a lightness to the discussion and eases some of the tensions that can occur when discussing team work.
We try different retro formats all the time. From the classic Sailboat reto, to Under the Sea, to Totoro. These are mainly just framing devices to keep the process fresh. They usually don’t disrupt the underlying format, which is good because it is important to have some familiarity going into these meetings.
What we want to find when we run retros is a place to reflect on the past, both the areas where we excelled and the areas where we need to improve. We want a place to voice our worries about the future in order to alleviate them. And we also want a place where we can appreciate; our teammates, the fun we had, the amazing activity, or how we as a team pulled a big project across the finish line.