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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Team Retreat

Team Retreat post image

I’ve just finished sorting out feedback from today’s team retreat. In my case it was more of a management retreat, as it would be pretty difficult to organize a retreat with all 140 people from my team. Anyway, we ended up having a retreat with all managers from my team, which means we’re down to less than 20 people. Still, kind a crowd, wasn’t it?

What do I mean by a retreat? In terms of a format it was an all day long meeting which was held off-site. Sort of. I mean we went to another office, the one no one works in. We did that, because it is crucial that no one is tempted to go back to their own desk. As one of my colleagues said it: “when we’re meeting in our office my thoughts are always floating around my desk.” For the sake of this meeting I wanted to break this connection. I wanted to have all of us concentrated and focused on subjects we were discussing.

Before I move to subjects we covered a quick disclaimer: it’s been first such meeting since I’m working with my current team. I treat it as an experiment. I know retreats should last at least two days, so we have enough time to chew through things we’ve just heard and come back to them tomorrow, once we have more insight on the subject. Hopefully we’ll come to this point, but first, let’s just make them work in a lighter format.

OK, so this was an experiment and something which was expected to be the first event of the series if people like it. We had a theme – everyone had 20 minutes to prepare a session in a form of their choice on something they’re doing in their team, which is valuable and worth sharing and copying. We ended up discussing stuff from alternatives of meetings (no-meeting culture, anyone?), through engineering practices, to cool coding tools which improve developers’ lives. We had PowerPoint presentations, no-slide sessions and discussions. We had some fun as well.

We run typical round-the-table to share our opinions on what had just happened, but we also had the feedback door.

Although it would be an abuse to say that feedback was purely positive, I’d say that, in terms of feedback, supportive messages just outnumbered critical ones. Now, it doesn’t mean we got it perfect the first time. No, we have hell a lot of work to do. However, we definitely are on a right track.

Why did it work so well then? There are a few reasons.

First, knowledge exchange. We work in an organization big enough that we have these silos, both formal and informal ones. We know each other, but not necessarily know what each of us is doing at the moment, let alone practices we use. It was a great occasion to share some information on that.

Second, focus. We do meet (almost) every week. Yeah, that’s true, but it’s always in the middle of something. This time we were isolated from our errands so we were paying attention to whatever was happening around.

Third, a kick in the butt. When we are in the middle of something important, which means pretty much all the time, it’s easy just to pop up and switch into passive mode. Yup, I will hear anything you have to share, but make it quick. And please, don’t make me do anything – I have important stuff to deal with. This time everyone actually had to prepare something. Not necessarily a big thing – anything between 10 and 20 minutes worked fine.

Fourth, integration. We spent the whole day with each other. Well, if you hate me, or any other of us, that’s not good news for you. However, if you consider us a team, a bit of integration definitely helps.

Now, you can easily scale this format up, and you get top management off-site, which in some companies is kinda popular.

But you can also perfectly scale this idea down to a team-level. Get your team out of their desks and discuss things which are important to them. You won’t be pushing your project further to its success at that very moment but think of it in terms of sharpening the saw. If you don’t let the event slide toward chaotic discussion on pretty much nothing important this investment will pay off pretty quickly.

Try it. You (probably) won’t regret it.

in: team management

2 comments… add one

  • Josh Nankivel October 24, 2011, 5:21 pm

    Very cool. It makes me wonder, do all those teams use Kanban Pawel?

    Taking it to a team level, I guess I feel like my teams are pretty well connected and giving continuous feedback through our scrumban-ish way of working, with our daily stand-ups in front of the kanban board.

    I’ve gone back and forth about being strict to the scrum policy of three questions and move on, but our happy medium has been to discuss technical or process topics and feedback daily for at least a few minutes.

    On a regular basis I’ll throw in the question about what we could be doing better, and the teams are comfortable enough with each other to give their honest feedback and we have a discussion.

    More often though, people just bring things up on the fly or when we run into a stumbling block, people start asking what happened and how we can avoid it in the future. I credit much of this to the lean/agile way of working and the visualization of the kanban board makes it impossible to NOT improve our processes.

    Josh, KanbanSchool.com

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 25, 2011, 12:15 am

    @Josh – Not all of these teams are using Kanban. But even if they do, or they do have standups, I still think it would be a good idea for them to hold such retreat.

    It’s not only about communication. It’s also about focus, which you don’t have during standups. Well, you don’t have it in the long run. And then you have integration. It works because the situation is different than usual. You don’t just attend a meeting. You invest the whole day (or a couple of them) to be there. You don’t run to your computer to fix an issue, unless your really, really have to. What more, you actually plan to be off-site for the whole day so most likely everyone around is prepared that you won’t be around so chances are good they won’t bother you.

    All these things create a situation which is very different than regular meetings and this is basically why they work so well.

    One more thought: it doesn’t really matter what kind of method you use – retreats are a tool, which works on different level, so you can apply then in pretty much any team.

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