Behaviours and rituals

In business it is a lot about rituals, useful ones or not so useful ones. If you are an experienced manager, maybe you know what I am talking about. But normally the higher managers move, the less they think that topic, although rituals can be a powerful tool for managers at all level to change behavior of their direct environment or even the whole organization.

In regular meetings, maybe as CEO or board level manger with your direct reports, have you ever tried to come first and change your standard seat in the boardroom? Observe what will happen: Will your colleagues be irritated and confused or will they just take another seat? Will they ask you about your intention or will they keep silent?

Breaking patterns can be as powerful as setting patterns or rituals, if these are the right ones. In complexity theory we talk a lot about sensing and observing emergent patterns or setting constraints and attractors to influence appearing patterns. Rituals are nothing more like setting constraints or attractors by a leader than could be adapted by others in the team. If these patterns spread and stabilize in a good way without knowing the reason any more, the result can be called rituals.

Retrospectives as rituals

Over the last years, the agile movement brought a lot of focus on best practices from the past and how to transfer them to the current working environment. A lot of pragmatic tools were invented in the agile community that helped us to apply knowledge in the working environment in a simple way. Retrospectives are one of them:

The word retrospective means looking back, contemplating or directed to the past. But it is not just a review of what happened in the past, but also a learning experience in the present and an outlook to the future. A retrospective can be defined as a universal tool to spend a certain amount of time together in a team to reflect about the past to learn for the future. Retrospectives can be used in various situations. In comparison to traditional lessons learned workshops they are often (but not necessarily) either more frequently or taking longer and go deeper.

Some examples and types of retrospectives

Let’s make this more concrete on some examples:

  • Project Retrospective: A project retrospective is done at the end of a project to identify things the team have learned and should be applied in future projects. In comparison to mor traditional project lessons learned workshops, a project retrospective is taken more serious and takes at least one day, sometimes 2 days. In a save atmosphere the team goes deep into the project history and searches for aspects that are worth reflecting, either good or bad. A challenge of this type of retrospective is that often management commitment is missing to spent „so much time“ on such a meeting or the culture is more to move on immediately to the next project so there is no time or energy to do another workshop on the last project.
  • Sprint Retrospective: Having its roots in the SCRUM project management methodology, the idea behind this type of retrospective is not to wait u til the end of the project to improve the way of working in the project team. So on a regular basis, at the end of every sprint, normally every 1-4-8 weeks, depending on the working cycle, the team spends 1/2 day on the review of the last cycle, simply working on what worked well, what didn’t work well and what to keep an eye on in the next cycle. This could lead to performance improvements up to 50-70% over the whole process lifecycle. Big advantage is that the continuous improvement idea is implemented in a systematic way where results can be seen immediately.
  • Meeting retrospective: An even more simple approach is the so called meeting retrospective. This is not limited to projects and can be used more broadly on all kinds of meetings. To apply this at the end of the meeting the meeting organizer asks the participants to answer on three simple questions in every meeting again and again, either by collecting answers on a flipchart or by collecting post-its:
    • What worked well/ what did I like in this meeting?
    • What didn’t work well/ did I not like in this meeting?
    • What should we change in the next meeting (in terms of structure, behaviour, insights, learning, …)?

This can be done in the last 5 minutes of the meeting. In the beginning it will take a little longe , but when it became a ritual, 5 minutes are totally enough. The meeting organizer takes the answers as a valuable gift and uses the last question in the first 5 minutes of the next meeting to focus the whole team on the aspects that need to be improved this time.

Conclusion – real continuous improvement in everyday business is possible

The examples give some ideas, how the idea of continuous improvement and organizational learning cycles can be implemented in daily business in a simple and effective way by doing regular retrospective. From my experience and perspective a very useful und effective and often underestimated tool.

What do you think? Any experiences already?