2020 Retrospective: Episode 77
In episode 77, since it’s the end of the year we’re going to talk about what often happens at the end of the year – a look back. I’ll do that in the form of a retrospective on this podcast, and since I’m talking about retrospectives, I thought I’d start with a quick pitch for retrospectives and other techniques as tools you should be using with your team.
I’m Nils Davis and you’re listening to episode #77 of the All The Responsibility, None Of The Authority podcast. This episode has a bonus download with tips for unleashing the power of retrospectives which you can find at alltheresponsibility.com/retrotips (or retro-tips). The notes for the show itself – with many links, including one to the bonus download – are at alltheresponsibility.com/77.
What is a retrospective?
- Regular review of what went well, what went badly, what you want to keep doing, what you want to stop doing, what you’d like to try next time (so really up to five categories, which is overwhelming, right?)
Why do we do them?
- “Debriefs improve effectiveness over a control group by approximately 25%”
- I’ll put a link to this paper in the show notes, but you can try searching for “Do team and individual debriefs enhance performance? A meta-analysis”
- So that’s the science, but anecdotally we know that lots of successful organizations use structured debriefs in the belief that they help the team learn better, perform at a higher level, etc.
- I wrote a blog post about this – link in the show notes – called “To 10x Your Profits Start With Retrospectives.” When you learn faster, you end up moving faster and more effectively, which means you get value to market faster (if you don’t screw that up in other ways), which means you are going to beat competitors more. When you beat competitors more you get more revenue, faster. And when you get more revenue faster, your profits go up.
- So, I should have convinced you, and if I haven’t, there are a lots of other sources
How do you do one? And how often?
- As a team of 1, I’m constantly, perhaps too constantly, reflecting on what’s working and what’s not working
- This is generally not as structured as it should be, (in retrospect, hahahaha)
That’s the overview of retrospectives – they are valuable, but they are also somewhat hard, and in my view, there is a great opportunity for better tools. But I always say that, don’t I?
Because I’ve covered “how-to-do” retrospectives on three podcasts already – episodes 52 and 325, and the other came out before I started numbering them. (Links in the show notes at atr.com/77) – I’m not going to go into much more detail on doing retrospectives, per se.
Different time frames
But, before I get to the reflections on the podcast itself – the 2020 review – I did want to mention a few more useful concepts that are somewhat related, and, like retrospectives, about learning, about improving, and about making better decisions.
Of course, the way we usually think about retrospectives if we’re in software is the “sprint retrospective” – which is a look back over a short period of development, typically a sprint, which is usually two to four weeks long. In other words, you’re not looking back very far. There’s a lot of value in this short view, especially for finding small niggling annoyances that can be eliminated quickly. Getting rid of those things fast can have a big impact on the team’s performance and happiness.
Post-mortems and pre-mortems
But you can also look back over a longer period. Perhaps over the course of an entire product release. If you’re in enterprise software like me, you probably have projects that take three months, six months, maybe even 12 months to deliver from start to finish. A retrospective over that period can be equally illuminating, as it can surface larger systemic challenges that if you address, make all future projects more successful. Of course, if a project fails we’re all familiar with the idea of a post-mortem to figure out what went wrong, and how to avoid it. But even if your project didn’t fail, a similar analysis can still be powerful, especially if there were challenges during the project that jeopardized its success.
As a side note, another powerful technique that’s almost the opposite is the “pre-mortem.” In this technique, you look into the future, to when your project has already failed or not met expectations (in your imagination, of course) and determine what situations led to that result. And then of course, in your planning you work out how to avoid those situations! It’s another kind of learning that can help your team be more effective.
Year In Review
Finally, there’s the technique that Tim Ferriss recommends using instead of making New Year’s resolutions. It’s very close to a traditional retrospective, but applied slightly differently. I’ll put a link to his article on this technique, which he calls simply “The Year In Review.”
The gist of it is to review your past year, making two lists. Things that created value for you, and things that lost value for you. (He talks about activities that created peak positive and peak negative emotions for you – when doing this for your personal life.)
What were the highest payback things that you did this past year?
Then you very purposefully make plans for the next year that include the activities that created value.
And you make a “Do Not Do” list of the activities that are negative, and you review it regularly. He suggests daily at first as the new year starts up.
Basically, if there’s something you want to be sure to do, or something that makes everything else better? Calendar it, or build it explicitly into your process.
And if there are things you NEVER want to do, explicitly build a process where you can reject those activities.
5 Retrospective Tips
- Get started: Retrospectives and debriefs only pay back their promise if you do them continually over a long period. Even though even one retrospective will often reveal insights that you can apply immediately, the real power comes over time as you build learning upon learning.
- Try different techniques and tools: The basic “what went well,” “what went badly,” “what shall we double down on” technique is great, there are a lot of different ways of doing a retrospective or a debrief or a post-mortem. The different techniques are good for revealing different insights.
- Retrospect over different time periods: Just like using different techniques, looking back over different periods can give you different insights. Even looking forward – doing a “pre-mortem” – has a lot of power.
- Accept small wins – Your insights might seem small for any given retrospective, but if you do them continually, they compound. And just as in sports, where the winning team is often separated from its competitors by tiny margins, you can win by inches compounded over time.
- And remember this process is not about “doing the retrospective” – that’s a means to an end, which is to improve the bottom line, for whatever bottom line you are interested in. Like any process, if the retrospective becomes the metric, it means you’ve lost touch with the goal and you’re unlikely to achieve the progress you desire.
So, let’s turn the spotlight back on me and this podcast.
As we have all experienced, 2020 has been an unusual year. So many odd things have happened, obviously the most significant of which is a global pandemic that has kept a lot of us home working in our garages.
Should have been a perfect time to put out a lot of podcast episodes. And indeed, I think there are a lot of new podcasts this year.
But of course pandemics, in addition to keeping us home, cause stress and worry and challenges of all kinds. So, how did all that play out for me?
As you know, I have a full time “day job” – I work for a very large enterprise software company where I’m responsible for a key component – but just a component – of the platform our clients use.
As a result of the pandemic, I no longer have a commute – I go to work from my garage. This has given me more time to write, but I’ve also spent a lot more time with my family, cooking, and to be honest, catching up on all the great TV. (And I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the TV, even though I feel like I watch plenty, I haven’t watched all of the big shows that have come out this year, or at least I haven’t finished all of them.)
Impact on the podcast
How did this impact the podcast?
Well, when I did my last retrospective episode for the end of 2019 I said the following, in the “What went OK but could be improved area.”
- Cadence of getting episodes out continues to be a challenge
- Show is solo – that’s been good, but there *are* some voices out there that I feel you could get a lot of insights from
- Sometimes I *sound* like I’m reading a script. Of course, I am often reading a script, but I’m not supposed to sound like I am.
- I sound like I’m already running at 1.25x speed!
So, how did I do against these items? We’ll get to that down the road.
First I want to take a brief detour on a topic that as a podcaster is one of the things that most weighs on me, if I let it. Consistency.
I write nearly every day, using an online app called 750words.com.
The site tracks a metric for me – the length of my current streak. I’ve had very long streaks – my longest is over a year of writing in the app every day. But I also have very long stretches where there’s *ONE* missed day. What’s that about, and how should I feel about it? In fact, I had one just recently – on December 1st I just forgot to do my writing, so my current streak, as I write this, is 19 days. (The streak I broke had gotten up to about 140 days, I believe.)
The first time I was on a really long streak and it broke, I was disappointed and it stuck with me for days. I was down on myself…
What happened to cause my streak to break? I just forgot to write that day. I mean literally, all day it never crossed my mind. I normally write in the morning, and if my routine works, that’s awesome and it’s not a problem to maintain the streak. But there are enough days in life where I just can’t get to the computer first thing in the morning, for whatever reason, and if that happens then I have to remember to get back to it later in the day, sometimes as late as 11:00pm or even later. (It takes me at least 12 minutes to write enough – 750 words – to maintain my streak, so I *have* to start writing by 11:45pm or it’s lost!)
Anyway, on that day I wasn’t able to write in the morning, and then I didn’t remember again about writing until the next day. I’d broken a lot of streaks in the past, but this one hit harder than previously. I’d had an idea that I would aim for a streak of at least a year, and then on day 185 or something I just forgot to write. And there’s no recovering at that point. You can’t patch up a missed streak.
So, what did I do? Eventually, I came around to a perspective on this. First of all, I’m very proud of the writing that I *do* do – I have written nearly 4 million words on this platform in about 10 years. That’s amazing, and I’m continually amazed at myself for that.
No one died from my missing the streak, no one was even hurt. Except me – and only if I let myself get hurt.
I realized that I had invested in the metric I was tracking, and had forgotten about the purpose of the writing. In other words, I had put the process over the purpose. I did a whole podcast on the dangers of putting process over purpose. (Episode 322.)
Putting process over purpose is a great way to stop delivering value, and it’s true in every aspect of life, both work and non-work.
I was also suffering from something else, that I mentioned in the last episode – “the second arrow.” This is an idea from Buddhism. The world will often pierce you with an arrow – some kind of pain, frustration, disappointment, injury, worry, whatever it might be. But the second arrow is that one that comes from you, the one that you inflict on yourself in the same place as the original arrow from outside. You don’t have much control over the world – it may randomly strike you – but you *do* have control over that second arrow. You can choose not to shoot it (at yourself).
So, with a little distance from my disappointment of my streak breaking, I turned it into a kind of a litmus test.
I realized my broken streak was a gift to myself. It was a relatively low impact way to remind me that the process was not the important part of what I was doing. The broken streak was the kind of imperfection that points out how rich life is.
It didn’t have any impact on the world or me except for the impact I let it have. And if I refused to let it have an impact, or indeed, made its impact on me into a positive, that was my choice.
How does this relate to my podcast retrospective?
Well, I’ve been frustrated with my uneven output of podcast episodes. 26 this year, but very irregularly. I had one or two months with 3 or more episodes, and a few months with NO episodes.
In other words, my streaks have been very … streaky!
The reality is that my streaks have been non-existent.
Not being consistent in podcast production potentially has a bigger impact than missing a day of writing. Everyone says that consistency is one of the keys to building your podcast audience and all that. But the fact is that I can’t do anything about the weeks I missed in 2020. I can strive to do better, but I can’t fix the past. But I can do more than that. I can not only accept what happened in 2020, I can celebrate it as “that’s what I did!”
Most podcasts stop after seven episodes, at least according to what I’ve read.
More than half of podcast episodes only have 100 downloads in their first month.
I’ve blown both of those metrics out of the water.
I don’t want to let some outside standard of success blunt the fact that I’ve got a podcast that’s now been going for years, and that people find a lot of value in – even if irregularly. And that I enjoy doing – when I do it! – and have big plans for.
The past is what it is, and the metrics are not as important as my satisfaction. If I can run this podcast to my own satisfaction, that’s what I should focus on.
I do this podcast all by myself – recording, editing, posting, writing the show notes, writing the script, all that stuff. And if I don’t have something interesting to talk about, something that I feel is value enough for *you* to spend 25-30 minutes listening to, I don’t want to do an episode just to keep a streak alive. So, I can be proud of that litmus test – I don’t focus on consistency in production, I focus on consistency in quality and meaningfulness and value. And by that metric, I feel 2020 was a great year for the podcast!
And of of course in 2021 I want to try to achieve both – consistency *and* quality. Quality will always win over consistency, though. If I don’t have a topic worth 25 minutes of your time, I’m not going to put an episode out that week.
2020 in the rearview
What went well
Let’s start with what went well, what I’ve been happy about with the podcast in 2020
- Podcast performance and content (22 or so episodes, lots of good content)
- I feel really good about the content I’ve put out this year. It’s run the gamut, from mental models to book reviews to interviews to career guidance.
- I’ve gotten some good feedback, which definitely helps serve as fuel to keep me going.
- Had two shows with guests – Liza Collin and Greg Prickril
- Simplifying my production process
- Production quality has been no problem at all – the episodes sound good, even though my production workflow is about as simple as possible and my level of expertise as a sound engineer is nil.
What didn’t go so well?
- Consistency was bad
- While I got my workflow down, I haven’t been able to reduce the time to create an episode
- I’d like to get more feedback. Not just for my own feelings of self-worth, but I’m not gonna lie – getting feedback helps with that. But without feedback it’s hard to know if I’m steering the boat in the right direction.
What I said I’d do
Back in 2020 I said I’d try some of the following in 2020:
- Fix the numbering scheme of the episodes. I did that, and I am sure some people are confused when they find episode #323 comes before episode 71, but that’s just going to be the way it is.
- Start having more guests. I did have two guests, but I don’t think I quite achieved my goal.
- Get to a weekly cadence… well, this did not happen
Looking forward to 2021
- Getting more people on, because I’ve run out of ideas
- Repurposing the content – for people who listen to the episodes it’s great, but there are a lot of people who are not listening and might find the content useful if it were in another form.
- Doing more audience building activities
Three things to note and perhaps start using yourself
Three things to take away from my retrospective.
- I do this show for you, and if you want to hear about a particular topic – what I think about it or how I’d address it or manage it – let me know. You can drop a line on the show notes page, or you can find my email address (it’s not difficult) or you can tweet me.
- Streaks – think about what vanity metric you’re valorizing in your life and see if you can’t get out from under it, like I’m trying to do with my writing streaks.
- I hope your year end activities – holidays, vacations, perhaps a little rest and relaxation – went well. I’m wishing all of us a great, exciting, transformational 2021. In fact, may it be just as interesting as 2020, but for better reasons!
Thanks for listening to this podcast over the past year. I’ve loved bringing it to you – I hope you’ve found some value.
Next year there *will* be some changes – for the better! – although I’m not going to promise more consistency. Think of the episodes as little treats that spill down from the Internet, and you never know when they are going to show up!
I have a great idea for a new interview series, which will require some organization on my part, so who knows when it’s going to hit the air.
If you want to drop me a line, or explore some of the podcast episodes I mentioned, visit the show notes at atr.com/77. You can leave me a comment and find all the links worth clicking.
And as a reminder, there is a bonus download with retrospective tips and resources at alltheresponsibility.com/retrotips (also retro-tips)
Have a great holiday season and a happy new year.
Until 2021, this is Nils Davis.