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More words; good advice for all

In a few words, a retrospective is some amount of time that a group of individuals or a team dedicates to reflecting on an iteration, a project, a feature or some other event. They then identify ways to improve their current process, and agree on action items they want to experiment with, or followup on. I won’t dive any deeper into what retros are here. If you’re interested in finding out more about them, there are hundreds of great article explaining them, why they’re useful and how to get started with retros. What I want to talk about is how my wife and I have used retros to iterate on our relationship. It might sound insane, or it might sound like we like process for the sake of process, but I love retros, because I only use them when they’re providing value. Here’s how we have been using retros every (almost) week for over 4 years.

One of the key ingredients that must be present in order for retrospectives, and as Google has found great teams, to be effective, is safety. Before we even started doing retros, we both agreed that it was a safe space, where either one of us could talk about anything and the other would listen and talk through it. We agreed that leaving a retro once it has begun is not an option. Now, there are some exceptions, as in if you’re talking in a restaurant and it catches fire while you’re retro-ing, it’s OK to leave and continue the retro at a later point in time, but only if you both agree to it. :)

This is a pretty straight forward step. We start going back in time and reviewing what this week was all about. Usually it starts with today and we work our way back to the day we held our previous retro. For us, the easiest way to remember our week has always been to think about what we had for dinner on each day. I don’t know about you, but there are many details I forget on a day-to-day basis. Somehow talking about dinners triggered us both to remember how we felt that day, or little events that occurred that we would have forgotten otherwise. Whatever works for you, use it.

Once the recap’s done, each person goes through the good things about the week and the bad ones. Order doesn’t matter, we tend to just go back and forth, sometimes talking about all the good or bad things, sometimes each person goes through both lists on their turn. It doesn’t really matter as long as each of us gets it all out there. This is the part of the retro that is at the same time the hardest and the most valuable. This is where we really test the safety we agreed to create, because not all thoughts are well formed, and that’s ok. We talk, listen, accept that it’s ok to have feelings about certain things, and work through disagreements. We spend a lot of time here, working to understand one another, and it’s absolutely worth it. Once it’s all done, take a a few deep breaths, especially if there were a lot of disagreements, and we review the previous retro’s action items.

Retros are really only valuable if we’re learning from them. The last question we ask each other is: “So what do you want to work on this week?” This is a pretty simple question, and we tend to aim for something that we can measure to determine success. It’s ok to work on the same thing multiple weeks in a row, some of our past areas of improvements and measurable goals:

  • I want to eat out less this week; eat out a maximum of N times.
  • I need to spend more time alone; identify a N days where we commit to be away from each other
  • The house is too messy and it’s driving me insane; X will clean this, Y will clean that

We then review it, as mentioned above, at the next retro.

We schedule retros weekly. We found that doing retros on a regular basis gives each of us a dedicated time slot where we both know that no matter what happens in the week, something urks us, or something really cool happened, we will have time to share it with our partner. This really helped us in the early days of our relationship to find alignment, identify what worked and what didn’t, and gave us a forum to voice our concerns. It also helped improve our communication and really brought us closer together. Both of us feel that resentment is a feeling we never want to have for one another, and sharing our feelings openly every week helped us avoid it.

  • Quiet places are great places for retros: park benches, beaches, terraces. Busy restaurants, nightclubs, even coffeeshops can be noisy enough to cause friction and stress which isn’t really what you want.
  • It’s ok to fight during a retro, remember? You have a safe space to talk about whatever is on your mind, sometimes those ideas don’t come out very polished and well, that can cause disagreements.
  • Skipping retros is ok too if there’s nothing to talk about, don’t just go through the motion. Early in our relationship, we were adamantly doing retros every single week. Now we do them less frequently because most of the time, we work pretty well as a team.

As agile methodologies have thought me over the years, just try things. Experiment, find what works for you. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback.

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