Continuous Improvement: Pausing To Go Faster
I often encounter passionate and hard-working individuals and teams who fall short on their ambitious goals, because they are spinning their wheels.
When faced with challenging goals, it can be tempting to dive in for a long time before coming up for air. While there are benefits to being focused, immersed, and charging ahead, there is a risk of doing the same things you’ve always done, working the same way you’ve always worked, and falling prey to the same mistakes over and over.
I think most people recognize the benefits of planning, and have the intention to learn from their mistakes. What sets winners apart is taking enough time for reflection, to think about both what went well and what could have gone better, and then integrating the learnings into the next plan.
Competitive sports teams will debrief after a match, study the matches of their opponents, and have a plan before the next match. Many high performing individuals spend time journaling/writing, in addition to planning. Most of us are not born prodigies, so to reach that high level of performance, it’s necessary to continuously improve. In this busy world, we have to give time to our thoughts to produce new insights.
I dislike the term “post-mortem” because it implies that your last project did not flourish and that there aren’t any things that went well. That might be true in rare cases, but as a recurring practice, you’ll improve your outlook with the more neutral term “retrospective”.
How to hold a productive retrospective with your team
1. The team should do most of the talking and the leader should facilitate
People are more likely to implement ideas that they thought of themselves than what they are told to do. The leader may have plenty of insights, but it’s best if they save them to bolster areas that will be most beneficial.
2. Start with what went well
Celebrate the wins. Teams often find it hard to identify what went well, but avoid the temptation to skip this part. Spending time to list what went well is important to identifying conditions for success and repeating that success. This part also builds confidence to help the team face what didn’t go well with more bravery and responsibility. So, help them remember what they did that was good & support repeating that goodness.
3. Identify actionable steps to address what didn’t go well
The retrospective is not a group complaining session. Sometimes tough feedback is necessary for a team to grow, but the leader needs to be mindful of when and how that is delivered so that it doesn’t make the team clam up. When things that didn’t go well are identified, take the time to brainstorm with the team what actions are realistic to attempt to improve/avoid the situation.
4. Incorporate the learnings into your next plan
You now have to-do lists of actions to repeat success, and actions to correct/prevent issues. Don’t let those lists rot! Assign owners to these actions, track them in the system you use to manage tasks and action items, and prioritize them into the next plan.
If you find yourself or your team spinning your wheels, taking time for reflection can help you get unstuck. Making reflection a team activity brings the benefit of a diversity of perspectives. Shining light on what went well helps you understand how to repeat it. Being action-oriented and assigning owners helps you implement your insights into each subsequent phase of work.
May you improve continuously! :)