Quick growth of small companies – why not use Agile Retrospective?

“Retrospective is a special meeting where the team gathers after completing an increment of work to inspect and adapt their methods and teamwork” say Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in “Agile Retrospectives”. But I see much more in Retrospective meetings and it can be by far more useful than a tool used in Agile project management.

Let’s start from the beginning. Retrospective meeting is most generally known as the end of Scrum Sprint. It helps improving next sprint, summarising last sprint and finding all impediments that were not spoken loud before. It requires a very good Scrum Master to lead Retrospective meeting – and from my experience it’s not even a meeting, it’s more a group session. Therefore the Scrum Master, or any other person leading Retrospective meeting,  acts as a kind of therapist. The difficulty is to keep yourself (as a Retrospective meeting leader) separate from the discussion. You are responsible for leading everyone else in the right direction, but you’re not involved in the discussion. So how it works – long story short, we all gather in one room, start from finding any issues, then complain about them, then finding a solution, finishing with a good will of change. That’s the end of each Sprint. And that works well.

But… Retrospective is looking back and making a change, learning and trying to improve. So why not use Retrospective meeting for… well, for everything we want to improve!

Let’s take any medium company. They win a big contract, they grow really fast but they still have a small company habits and culture. They want to improve and therefore the big boss orders restructuring of his company. Perfect, a big opportunity to make a change. But what if it won’t work? I’ve seen many companies investing a lot of time and a lot of money in change to find out that it’s not what they’re looking for. Six months of changes, hiring new people and it works even worse than before. Why? Because improvement needs to be controlled as well and nothing gives you a better control of change than Retrospective. In this case what should happen is the key people of organisation should gather together for one big (and probably long) Retrospective meeting. Preferably they will get a contractor who will lead it for them if they don’t have relevant skills. They have to find out what their issues are and, following standard Retrospective, select just some of  the issues, create a plan of how to change to improve, and execute the plan. Then meet again in some period of time, see how it went and more importantly, pick another (maybe even new) issue and try to solve it. This way we create an iteration of company growth and change, this is our required control of the change. This way you will quickly pick up things which won’t work and can modify them accordingly before they’ll cause more damage than good.

That’s perfect but where does the problem start – at management level? No, it starts usually with everyday work. In my experience many companies, big or small, making any change they gather managers, directors, all big executives and they come with those brilliant ideas how to improve. But what they do is making a change for all other people, and a good manager is a good listener. If you don’t know what’s happening down below you won’t be able to make a good change. Therefore start from managers because they are decision makers, but then move lower. Create retrospective meetings between your team members, even as low as secretary. You would be amazed finding out what they think about company organisation and their ideas of change. Sometimes you think “oh, we’re growing and we need more people to work better’. But if you’ll gather your employees you might find out that it’s not lack of people what’s your teething problem but bad management of time of current employees. They might tell you that their capabilities are way bigger if they only wouldn’t have to deal with clients personally. Then hiring just a project manager might increase your capabilities way more than hiring 3 more workers.

Here is my advice for small-medium company growth. Get an experienced Scrum Master or Retrospective leader and ask them to lead your retrospective meetings. Run them often and run them regularly. Issues come and go but the good organisation tackles them in the real time. Bad organisation waits until they go and then that issues always comes back with doubled strength and usually hit on the back of the head, when you don’t expect them. So change, but change wisely. And use retrospective because group knowledge, group ideas are always better than individual’s.

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