Every leader wants to lead a learning organization. We all want to have a team that gets better over time and is able to respond to the unexpected with speed and agility.
These are not qualities that develop accidentally or organically. Just like athletes train in the offseason and between games so they can be game-ready, so too must your team train.
A few years ago, I had a hip replacement — I was young for this kind of procedure, but I’d been limping for five years and walking with a cane for two. Due to an anomaly in my bone structure, along with some hard use — skiing, running, cycling, hiking, and in martial arts dojos — I no longer had cartilage in my left hip, and each movement meant bone was grinding on bone.
These years of imbalance and increasing inactivity left me weak and with a wonky back that would “go out” at a moments notice sometimes, leaving me bent over and in pain for weeks at a time.
As I began putting my body back together, I focused first on weight training. But I kept throwing my back out again and again, which led to inactivity, which then led to more susceptibility to my back going out the next time I returned to the gym.
After going through this cycle a few times, I realized that though I was making gains in strength, I was also vulnerable to disruption and was not building a resilient body, but a fragile one.
A Strong Core
During one such bad back episode, I found Pilates, and this practice changed everything. Developed by a dancer, this discipline sits somewhere between physical therapy and physical training and combines activities that both improve flexibility and strengthen muscles deep in the body.
Pilates doesn’t work on biceps, pecs, or other “show” muscles but instead focuses on strengthening the small muscles like the hips and lower back that don’t really show on the outside of the body.
These so-called “core” muscles are where almost all movements your body makes begin. When they work well together and are strong, our bodies move in ways that keep vulnerable spots safe and make our bodies more efficient and effective.
Pilates is not just about getting strong and flexible (though that is one benefit); it is also about learning how to move in optimal ways.
As someone who spends a lot of time focusing on improving team performance, the Pilates metaphor is a powerful one.
A Team’s Core
Our teams need to not only be strong and flexible on the surface — that is, have well developed individual skill sets and problem-solving capabilities — they also need to have a strong core, or a deep ability to work well together as a team. When teams gel, they become greater than the sum of the individuals and are more efficient, effective, and resilient.
Just as a strong core protects us from physical injury, when unexpected stressors come our way in business, it is the core that protects us, keeps us strong and injury free.
The most valuable tool in our tool box for strengthening a team’s core is often the most neglected: the retrospective.
A retrospective is a meeting that looks back over a time period — from a single meeting to a month, quarter, or year — and focuses not on the work but on how the work was done and how the team experienced the work. It’s a way to focus on one time period to see how the team worked during it and how it might improve moving forward.
This kind of reflection and conscious improvement is at the very core of what it means to be a learning organization. Teams are not just groups of people. They are the result of deliberate practice of the art and science of “teaming,” and retrospectives are a key component of this practice.
Running a Retrospective
While most meetings focus on the day-to-day work, a retrospective focuses on the team doing the work. Retrospectives are designed to do three things:
Collect data about the team’s performance.
Make sense of that data.
Decide what things to do differently.
While there are hundreds of formats to choose from, a simple format is often best. Here’s a quick way to run a retrospective:
STEP 1: SET UP
You need to get all team members in one place — digitally or physically — and agree on the time period the retrospective will cover.
STEP 2: GATHER DATA
Ask the group “what went well?” and “where did we get stuck?” for the time period in question. Putting Post-it notes on a wall or using a digital whiteboard like Mural is a great way to do this.
STEP 3: ANALYZE THE DATA
Ask the group to group the Post-it notes together into affinity groups and reflect on the cause of the stuckness and also why the things that went well went well.
STEP 4: DECIDE WHAT TO DO
Ask the group to generate ideas for what to do differently moving forward and then to commit to a few of them. The idea is not to generate any giant new projects but to focus on small changes that may become new habits — things like changing how planning is done or how changes in direction are decided and communicated to the team, or how the team communicates with each other (like: “let’s use slack instead of email moving forward”).
When done consistently, retrospectives have a transformative effect on teams. The team develops self-awareness of their performance as well as a deeper understanding and appreciation for each other.
This is your team’s core. When your team is self-aware and has a habit of steady improvements, then it knows how to move through disruptions large or small.
Just like a Pilates practitioner knows how to move their body for maximum safety, effectiveness, and efficiency, a team that practices regular retros also learns how to move through time and space in strong, effective ways.
P.S.: The folks over at Parabol have developed a great tool for retros — check it out.