How Businesses Stay Agile: The Art of Being Retrospective

The greatest use for agile in business is in changing how you tackle problems and projects. Rather than defining the whole project and setting a “way forward,” an agile approach takes things much more iteratively. That means meeting as a team on a frequent and regular basis to share problems and successes, then making improvements as needed—being retrospective.

There’s no question that agility is a necessity in the fast-moving world of software development. Being agile means you’re flexible, fast, and adaptable. An agile approach keeps you nimble enough to keep on innovating, which is what software development should be all about.

But agility doesn’t apply exclusively to software development. Creating a structure that allows for rapid, continuous innovation is good for business, regardless of the industry or functional area in which you work. 

So, how does an agile approach work for business? And perhaps more importantly, how can your company adopt an agile approach to process improvement?

Being Retrospective

A lot goes into an agile approach, but its greatest use for businesses is in changing how you tackle problems and projects. Rather than defining the whole project and setting a “way forward,” an agile approach takes things much more iteratively. From a practical standpoint, that means meeting as a team on a frequent and regular basis to share problems and successes, then making improvements as needed.

Let’s say your executive team meets every two weeks—not for long, but long enough to look at their processes and output and decide on any needed changes. Everyone on the team has a say, and you get a chance to review and learn as you go. 

That’s known as being retrospective: What worked before? How is it different now? What do we do about it next? Being retrospective is the key to continuously improving.

An agile approach gives you the chance to try new methods while constantly reviewing progress. Unfortunately, that’s completely foreign to the way most businesses operate. All too often, businesses tack a review process onto the very end of a project. This limits the amount of value that can be derived from lessons learned.

Being retrospective and only trying things for a short period means you can try more things, and fail and learn faster. That might feel inefficient at first, but in the long term, organizations are more likely to see a trend of continuous improvement—and innovation—with the more ideas they test.

Being retrospective will show some surprising benefits. Chief among these is that you will have more opportunity to experiment. Because your trial to fix a problem or test a new idea may only last a few weeks, the impacts to business are lower. If the trial doesn’t work, you can scrap it and try something else. You will be able to identify problems before they cost a lot of money or cause a lot of damage. With an open forum in which people can make connections and agree on changes, improvements are a given, and your work culture gains strength.

Your estimates also will be more accurate. When you examine processes and outputs more regularly, trends are quickly identified and consistency is easier to achieve.

And individual team members will develop confidence, gaining a better view of the company and the value of the contributions they make to it.

Flexing Your Retrospective Muscle

In practice, taking an agile approach to work takes a great deal of discipline. Just like you need regular exercise to keep your body agile, making your business agile requires commitment. But like with exercise, that commitment to an agile approach pays ample dividends in the end.

You might be working in a traditionally rigid company, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a start on your own team’s agility. Practice these steps to get your team started down an agile path.

  1. Begin with the discipline of regular and frequent meetings. Discuss your problems and pain points.
  2. Think about the best setup for inclusiveness—a round table, sticky notes, a white board, or something else.
  3. Leave hierarchy at the door. For the duration of the meeting, everyone is equal, with an equal opportunity to contribute without interruption.
  4. Discuss process, not people.
  5. Keep each meeting short—no more than thirty to sixty minutes. Raise multiple issues to begin with and then agree on a few clear actions that should be accomplished right away.
  6. Share all actions. Don’t leave everything to one person to handle.
  7. Meet again in two weeks. Discuss the actions of the previous meeting and determine which ones worked and which ones need to be reconsidered or require a different course of action.
  8. Repeat steps 3 through 7 and, over time, you’ll build a rich, agile team culture.

Don’t ask permission; just do it. When you’ve run long enough to show some genuine business benefits, take your results to senior management.

The Retrospective Effect

From the start, you can expect a range of outcomes from your meetings. Some may be big issues, but many are about your team culture—how you work together and solve problems. Often, you don’t see any of these things unless you take the time to stop and look, regularly and often. In other words: Be agile.

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