January 18, 2017

Meetings are usually a waste of time, but make an exception for this one.

Every Friday, my team meets to discuss how the week went. We suggest ways to work together better, brainstorm and set goals. This end-of-week meeting is called a retrospective. It gives teams an opportunity to assess how their week went, talk about new ideas and recognize good work.

We all know how newsrooms usually work: As soon as you finish with your latest story, it’s on to the next thing. There are precious few chances to think about what went right (and wrong). Over time, this can create a culture of silence that stifles dissenting opinions and leaves managers in the dark. Where would the ideas come from if we don’t make time for them?

These meetings can be awkward. It’s hard to talk about what went wrong, and open-ended meetings are hard to prepare for.

Related Training: A Guide to Difficult Conversations

The first few times I ran retrospective meetings, it felt full of potential landmines. No one wanted to say something that would offend someone. No one felt like they could be honest about things that went badly. It was difficult to remember the details of the project after a tough week.

But after much trial and error, I came up with an end-of-week retrospective meeting that works for my team of engineers and designers. It’s an hour long; the first half-hour is focused on reflection, and the second half is spent on research each of us has done over the week. Here’s what we’re aiming for:

Set expectations at the start of the week so everyone knows what to talk about at the end

At the beginning of the week, set priorities and goals and write them where everyone can see them. What do we need to get done, and how long do we expect those things to take? Did each person agree with their editor or supervisor on how long they need to finish that goal, and do they know what it means to be “done?” What’s unfinished from last week, and what do they need to help wrap that up?

If the expectations aren’t clear, it’ll be frustrating for everyone involved. For folks who tend to be optimistic overachievers, this helps as well. If someone consistently takes on more than they can complete in a week, for example, you’ll be able to see this pattern quickly.

Before it’s too late, tell them to ask for the time they really need rather than working overtime. Hopefully, that’ll prevent them from burning out sooner and set them up for success — and help them recognize that they need to improve in certain areas.

What went well?

Your team had clear goals on Monday, and now it’s Friday. What went well? Each person should have a few minutes of uninterrupted time to talk about what they thought went well — maybe they learned something new, even if they didn’t meet their goal when they thought they would. Maybe they worked with someone who helped them figure out how to approach a problem.

What’s behind schedule, and what was frustrating?

These questions keep people accountable to the goals they set with their manager. What happened during the week that required more time? Did something unexpected come up? Was their time estimate too short? By framing these questions in terms of frustration, you take blame away from someone who didn’t meet all their goals for the week.

One time, my teammate estimated that he would be able to get something done in four days that ended up taking seven, partly because it was more complicated than we initially thought. During our retrospective meeting, we talked about making more conservative time estimates since, we typically work on products that no one else in the company has had much experience on.

Where did you get stuck?

This question helps you identify a few things: Where did you get stuck, and what did you do to solve the issue? What will you do next time?

A possible solution to these hurdles: Schedule a pre-determined time to tackle something you don’t know how to move forward with. You can set aside a limited amount of time and check to see if you are still not sure what to do after trying to work on it for four hours. Are you moving much more slowly than you would if someone was helping you? Ask for help, or brainstorm with someone.

Find ways to recognize people who do different kinds of jobs.

At Facebook all-hands meetings, CEO Mark Zuckerberg highlights a “Fix of the Week” that solved a difficult bug. This is a great way to recognize effort in teams that have a mix of workers who receive public credit (bylines) and ones who work completely behind the scenes.

So, who were the behind-the-scenes heroes on your team who kept the train on track? Did an editor provide great feedback on an important piece that made it far better than before? Did a user experience designer come up with thoughtful questions that got clearer responses during user testing? Did someone share advice that a lot of people found helpful? Over time, encourage other folks to take the time to recognize their teammates on how they helped behind the scenes.

Make changes where it’s needed.

If your team works on longer-term projects, adjust this meeting for every two weeks, or a month, or whatever time works for them. If you work with freelancers or teammates that don’t work with each other, you can build retrospectives into one-on-one meetings with those folks every month or so.

Every so often, invite your team members to tell you on their own or in the meeting what’s working and what’s not and actually make those changes. By setting aside time, you can create a culture of accountability, realistic work expectations and advocacy for your team.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Elite Truong is on the Vox Products team. She writes monthly about innovation for Poynter.
Elite Truong

More News

Back to News