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Making Time for Reflecting and Retros

Thrive Advisory | 08/12/2022

It’s the most wonderful time of the year (aside from the fact we are all completely exhausted)!

And it’s no wonder we’re tired.  It’s been another ‘year’. Pandemic aside, we’ve had weather events, wars and growing financial strife to contend with – all on top of our standard ‘BAU’ demands.  At this point in proceedings, it can be tempting to put our heads down and focus hard on crossing the end of year ‘finish line.’  Yet with economists and political analysts forecasting a challenging 2023 ahead, it’s hard not to feel some ambivalence about what may be waiting on the other side.

It’s perhaps then even more important than prior years that we send our teams off for a truly restorative break – but not before pausing to reflect on the wins, the losses, the ups, downs and growth opportunities 2022 has provided.  So before the big team party and Irish goodbyes, the close of the year presents a stellar opportunity for leaders and their teams to do just this.

We’ve been advising our clients not to waste this opportunity (tempting as it may be to insist that the team is too busy…) and to schedule in time with their teams to look back at the year that was; identify what they and their teams nailed, where they have faltered or even failed and what they all learned.

“Retros” or “Blameless Postmortems” have many practical benefits.  They are key to continuous improvement, learning and growth, and there is ample research to show that teams who conduct these kind of debriefs (and have the psychological safety to do them well, without blame!) perform better than those that do not. [1] Moreover, they can also contribute in other, more subtle ways that can enhance team cohesion, engagement and wellbeing.

While the year-end frazzle is predictable, our clients are reporting levels of stress and exhaustion at a rate (and with a level of emotion) we have never experienced before.  The accumulated stress of 2020 – 2022 and the ongoing physical and mental health challenges related to the pandemic is being compounded by the inevitable end of year rush to close things out. In this headspace, we imagine many individuals are less likely to take the time for themselves to reflect on all the things they have achieved and learned throughout the year.

Leaders consciously pausing their team in the midst of this rush for a short, informal “Retro” can be a gentle forcing function to ensure individual and collective learnings, lessons and ideas for 2023 are extracted and accomplishments are acknowledged and celebrated. This can allow teams to recognise their efforts and enter the holiday break with some of the ‘weight’ of the past year lifted. It also provides an opportunity for leaders to be more deliberate about the mindset they want their team members to enter their holidays with. People who have closed out the year purposefully and with a balanced sense of accomplishment and progress are more likely to come back refreshed and reinvigorated, than a group of frazzled employees who limped over the finish line without pausing to look back.

If this has been a useful reminder, and you’re thinking about scheduling in a year end reflection, we like the 4L Retro that Atlassian leverage where the pre-work can be very short and sharp to reduce the time and data preparation burdens. Prior to the Retro, team members are asked to spend no more than 30 minutes to reflect on the last quarter or the full calendar year and prepare to discuss what they:

  1. Loved
  2. Loathed
  3. Learned
  4. Longed for

We recommend the individual shares (“The What”) are followed by a discussion of team-level themes that emerged and a short and sharp discussion of the “So What?” and “What Next?” including:

  • Actions –“To Dos” (with a focus on what is urgent and what can get pushed to 2023).
  • “To Don’ts” – what you might leave behind, “delete” or deprioritise per our recent post.   “To Do, To Don’t, Ta Da!”?
  • Shifts in mindset or approach for the quarter or year ahead at a high-level.
  • Any resource requests or request for each other’s time and input (elements from “longed for”) that you might need to position with the CEO, Board or other stakeholders or consider from a budget trade/off perspective for 2023.
  • A check in on whether anyone has anything on their mind that they haven’t been able to share in the normal course of BAU team meetings.
  • Time permitting, a few clear team-wide or enterprise-wide priorities for the next quarter/year.

Here are some of our tips and reminders for year-end reflections specifically:

  • Think about leveraging the time you are planning to be together in person for year-end events / parties. We are not suggesting replacing the dance floor with a workshop setup, but consider scheduling in a few hours of team discussion time before leaving for the event. Done well, reinforcing the wins from the year can give your party an additional air of celebration.
  • Plan to get the balance right between staying in a constructive space, while still allowing your team to air the things they found challenging. Be mindful of your own and others’ defensiveness, acknowledge the impacts of particular actions or events and resist the urge to blame.
  • Framing the debrief as the beginning of a conversation that will be picked up in the new year reinforces a longer term perspective and assists with ongoing alignment and continuity. The alternative is trying to begin 2023 with a look back which runs the risk of feeling irrelevant at best (“How am I supposed to remember what happened in April last year”) or counter counterproductive at worst (“Why are we rehashing this now?”).

It is okay to surface things that won’t be ‘actioned’ until the new year; that is precisely the point; to give people time to process at their leisure over the break and come back with a fresh perspective on what can and should be done differently. The trick comes in being disciplined enough to bring the reflections from your year-end debrief into your team meeting(s) in the new year.  (Another useful reminder to bring your team back together once the majority are back from their holidays to begin the year with renewed purpose and focus).

  • Leave enough time to close out on a positive and productive note, side-stepping the risk of cutting off an intense team discussion midway and then forcing some sort of conclusion. Again, whilst we recognise that you and your team are undoubtedly busy, and finding the time will be tough, resist the temptation to try to ‘cram’ a longer debrief in.  Be realistic about the ground you want to cover, and just to be safe; leave a little buffer!

[1] Allen, Reiter-Palmon, R., Crowe, J., & Scott, C. (2018). Debriefs: Teams Learning From Doing in Context. The American Psychologist73(4), 504–516.