Team Improvement sessions should be conducted by and for the team. Here are the benefits.
Team Improvement vs. Retrospective: Same meaning, different emphasis
Team Improvement is a collaborative session for team members to look at continuous improvement. The goal is to find a small action item that the team can implement in the coming cycle to improve how they work together. Reflecting back on their most recent Launch Cycle helps the team learn from actual events.
You may have heard this called the Retrospective in Scrum, and if you’re already familiar with or practicing retros, keep it up. We’re not changing the meaning of something that we already know works amazingly well, but we’ve given the name a slight facelift — so let me tell you how that story unfolded.
After coaching many teams over nearly a decade, I noticed the missing piece that wasn’t happening (although it’s supposed to happen by definition), which is actually improving how the team works together. Over time, these meetings often turned into b*tch sessions where I’d hear things like, “We don’t have the right martech stack to do our jobs,” but instead of coming up with solutions and solving problems, it was restating the same complaint week after week. And that felt counterproductive.
So even though Team Improvement and Retrospective are synonymous, the emphasis on the words “Team Improvement” was deliberate, to ensure that the focus remained on becoming a continuously improving team, not just retro-ing what’s going well and what’s not, over and over again.
Team Improvement benefits
Agile is all about continuous improvement. You’re never done with agile marketing because that would imply that learning the basics is good enough. High performing teams always reflect back on how they can improve, and teams that feel empowered really enjoy this session because they feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.
A Team Improvement session should be conducted by the team, for the team. This is where Practice Leads and Stakeholders need to get out of the way and give the team space to solve its own problems without interference. When I’ve seen a boss jump in and try to solve a problem for the team, it shuts down their power and they’ll naturally defer to the boss. A team feels automatically more psychologically safe when among peers, so avoid any power dynamics here if possible.
Benefits to holding a Team Improvement session are:
- Continuous improvement.
- Builds trust & relationships.
- A safe space to speak up.
- Empowers team to solve their own problems.
All of this leads to a higher performing team.
Tips for facilitation
If you have an Agile Champion role on your team, that person should be the facilitator. If that role is absent, create a rotating facilitator responsibility. The facilitator needs to keep this fun and engaging, while also remaining a neutral party.
A website such as Tasty Cupcakes can spark some fun ideas for this session to keep it interesting, especially in a virtual setting. There are also several automated tools available — here’s a comprehensive list to check them out.
While it’s easy to fall into the trap of the same format for Team Improvement sessions each cycle, mix it up. Definitely have fun with it! The Sailboat is a classic agile theme. There are many resources online showing how to build a Sailboat template: Here’s one example.
First, the team centers around a project or initiative. Next, a timebox is set for the team to fill out the virtual stickies in each category. Somewhere between five and 10 minutes is good, depending on the size and complexity of your team.
The categories that the team will reflect on are:
- Wind in our sails — what’s moving us forward?
- Beacons on the horizon — what milestones, goals are upcoming?
- Anchors holding us back — what’s keeping us from making progress?
- Reefs or rocks we see ahead — What do we need to navigate around?
After everyone’s had a chance to silently submit sticky notes (you can even send out the template ahead of time if you have people in other time zones), a timeboxed discussion takes place and everyone should have an opportunity to share their thoughts.
The final take-away, and the biggie, is: What one actionable item are we going to commit to that will help us as a team drive forward? This is the Team Improvement piece, and really the golden nugget of it all.
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