“An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backwards.”
This oft-quoted line from Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho casts light on the importance of active reflection and addressing setbacks before growth can occur.
While some organisations might query why they should allocate resources towards a retrospective review when the focus should be on reaching the next goal post, the latter is far easier to achieve after some degree of reflection and learning has taken place.
John Gawne, Managing Director of Resilient Services, says his company is currently conducting retrospectives, also known as after-action reviews, with four organisations as they attempt to manage the fall-out following a critical incident.
But retrospectives can also be conducted following a significant event or project, or after something as routine as implementing a new database system.
HRM speaks with Gawne about how to make retrospective reviews an integrated and regular part of a company’s practice.
Why retrospective reviews are worth it
Irrespective of whether your organisation calls them retrospectives, after-action reviews, post-mortems or cool downs, these forms of structured debriefing more or less amount to the same thing: delineating a project’s successes from its failings, and capturing knowledge that can shape the direction of future projects.
Retrospectives cement continual improvement into a company’s ethos, and ensure the lessons learnt from a team’s project flow outwards to benefit other employees.
“When you set out to do something and you have a set of procedures or assumptions, sometimes things turn out differently,” says Gawne. “After-action reviews are a really good way to learn. It’s not just what you’ve done badly, but what’s gone well.
“If you are looking for operational excellence, you can put those improvements into the systems and somebody else can pick it up if they do something similar… You might have found an idea that somebody suggested for a project was really successful, so if you can embed that into your procedures. It becomes part of what the company does rather than someone having to invent something from scratch again.”
Integrating regular learning opportunities can seem less effortful if it’s an integrated part of your processes, rather than it being a formal event that requires a considerable amount of planning and preparation.
Cultural pillars for success
For retrospective reviews to be effective, some essential cultural foundations need to be in place.
A commitment to continual improvement and a willingness to admit wrongdoing should be woven into a company’s culture.
In a recently released episode on The Indigo Podcast called ‘Getting Better Now: The Power of After-Action Reviews’, hosts and management consultants Ben Baran and Chris Everett lament how some organisations operate on the principle that “truth comes from above”.
This is one principle that needs to be thrown out the window when conducting retrospectives.
“One of the reasons that you have these is so that you can gather diverse perspectives from people. If truth comes from above and we go round thinking and acting like that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter what other people think.
“In a good after-action review, you are assuming that people have diverse opinions that matter. It comes from all of us working to make sense of a situation.”
Retrospective meetings shouldn’t be an exercise in finger pointing or laying blame, but an opportunity to reflect as a team and acknowledge shortcomings that can be worked on so that a more beneficial outcome might eventuate in future projects.
“There needs to be a willingness to learn and permission to speak your mind, and to acknowledge that not everything is always going to be perfect,” says Gawne.
“We can learn from our mistakes as well as our wins.”
Ensuring employees feel safe to air any concerns or fess up to their own areas of improvement without backlash – i.e. creating an environment of psychological safety – will mean team members feel they can speak truthfully.
This helps leaders get to the heart of any issues, and ensure no issue goes left unsaid out of fear of reprisal.
How to set up an effective retrospective process
Getting the most out of retrospectives requires more than just good intentions to reflect and improve.
There needs to be a structure in place to ensure it’s not being performed perfunctorily, but that there’s a genuine desire to hear their insights and learnings.
Implementing Gawne’s advice could help to deliver results, and make your retrospectives a worthwhile process:
- Set your terms of reference: “Know what you are reviewing – is it a process, procedure or event? You can’t just have this endless magnifying glass on everything,” says Gawne. “You might say we are going to look at our delivery of a certain project, but our interactions with suppliers aren’t within the scope of this discussion”. Setting clearly defined boundaries also ensures employees who worked on a confidential project know that they’re safe to discuss certain material that was once under wraps, says Gawne.
- Assign a new leader to facilitate a retrospective: “The person who ran the project would be the worst person to run it,” says Gawne. “They have done the best they could and it could be that there wasn’t a lot of trust on the project, or that it didn’t work… If you have an independent person – whether internal or external – you can get to the nub of the issue a lot more quickly.”While appointing a leader who wasn’t working on the project to facilitate a group discussion could mean they don’t have expert knowledge, Gawne says this can actually be to the group’s advantage.“We recently did an after-action review that involved critical infrastructure. The facilitator from my company was an ex-traffic controller. They didn’t need to have expert knowledge of the subject matter, they just needed to ask the right questions. I didn’t conduct it because I know a lot about the area so I could’ve put a prejudiced slant on what I would’ve asked. This approach kept it open, and meant there were no dumb answers and no dumb questions.”“You need to have enough background knowledge to understand things but not in great detail. Having zero reference point can actually be a great advantage.”
- Allow breathing time, but act with efficiency: Best practice is to conduct a retrospective as soon as possible after an event so the learnings are fresh in employees’ minds.“The sooner the better, provided that people have had the opportunity to stop and reflect and they aren’t horrified by a bad project. Within the first month is ideal, because teams dissipate and sometimes you have people in just for a project. But don’t do it in the heat of battle.”
- Offer alternative avenues for input, such as opportunities for anonymous comment: “In case there are cultural issues, we send an electronic survey to all the invitees. Sometimes you pick up people who are concerned about what they might have said, but here there is no attribution at all. It’s also about establishing trust and giving people a degree of control.”
- Script and pre-send the questions: “You need to give people forewarning – tell them what they need to do to prepare, and what they need to bring,” says Gawne. “Then everyone knows what’s coming up and they’ve been able to prepare their materials.”
After taking the time to conduct a retrospective review, your team can embark on the next project from a stronger starting point and achieve better results the next time round.
The next line of Coelho’s quote – “When life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means that it’s going to launch you into something great” – says as much.